HC Deb 12 February 1987 vol 110 cc461-70 3.36 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us 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 16 FEBRUARY — Second Reading of the Broadcasting Bill [Lords].

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

TUESDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day (8th Allotted Day). Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate entitled "The Problems and Needs of Disabled People". Afterwards there will be a debate entitled "Women in the Community". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on the Social Security (Payments on Account, Overpayment and Recovery) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 18 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on a motion to take note of the Government's expenditure plans 1987–88 to 1989–90, Cmnd. Paper No. 56.

Motions on the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) Order and the Revaluation Rate Rebates (Scotland) Order.

THURSDAY 19 FEBRUARY — Remaining stages of the Banking Bill.

FRIDAY 20 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 23 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the report of the Sizewell B public inquiry on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Kinnock

On Monday week's business, will the Government put down a motion for debate on the Sizewell public inquiry rather than take it on the Adjournment of the House? As the Government's decision on Sizewell is to be announced after the debate, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the House is given a further opportunity to debate that decision when it is made?

In his statement on Monday, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food promised that next month he will publish a White Paper on his proposals on the rural economy. Will the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a debate on that White Paper and that the Minister of Agriculture will not respond in his preferred fashion—in the form of a written answer?

St. David's day is approaching. Will the Leader of the House undertake to provide Government time in the near future for a whole day's debate on Welsh affairs?

The privatisation of British Airways has involved the sale of a profitable national asset at a loss to the taxpayer of £300 million because the share issue was under-priced, and led to a first-day profit for speculators of £50 million. That is obviously scandalous by anybody's standards. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that we have a debate soon on the profligacy of the Government's privatisation policies and how, once again, this sell-off was so under-priced?

Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed that, yesterday, while the Prime Minister was saying in London that she would value it enormously if the United States would consult with its allies on the ABM treaty, in Washington, Mr. Kenneth Adelman, head of the United States Arms Control Agency, was saying that the Western allies have no business telling Washington how to interpret the treaty, because they have "no qualifications"?

Will the Leader of the House ensure that early next week we will have a statement from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs telling us, first, whether consultations with the USA are taking place; secondly, what advice is being tendered by Her Majesty's Government on the interpretation of the ABM treaty; and, thirdly, whether Mr. Adelman speaks for Mr. Weinberger, for Mr. Shultz, for the Administration or just for himself?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman's first point was about Sizewell and the debate that is promised for Monday week. I am sure it is right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy should hear the views of the House before he takes a decision. It would be wholly inappropriate to have a debate on this matter on a substantive motion. Therefore, I cannot accede to the right hon. Gentleman's request in advance of that decision. That said, I acknowledge immediately that a different situation will arise after the decision has been announced, and that a debate in that context would be a subject for discussion through the usual channels.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a debate on the White Paper on the rural economy. That is a lively topic and I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman suggests. It is customary to have the debate on Welsh affairs around St. David's day. Again, perhaps that matter could be considered through the usual channels.

I dissent from the right hon. Gentleman's description of the public launch of British Airways. I thought it was a highly sucessful flotation. One knows with what glee there would have been a chorus of denunciation if it had been a failure. I am sure that many hon. Members would take a keen interest in a debate about privatisation and what it is doing to expand the opportunity for share ownership. Perhaps we could pursue that through the usual channels.

Finally, I note the request for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement about the ABM treaty and the position of the Government. I thought that the matter was made quite clear by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during her exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). Of course, the matter can be looked at through the usual channels.

Mr. John Mark Taylor (Solihull)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the harrowing events in the Lebanon compel many people to the conclusion that there is no point in parleying with fanatics? Will he permit a short debate on this subject?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that he speaks for a large number of hon. Members and for many people. He might consider raising the matter by way of an Adjournment debate rather than taking Government time to raise it.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

In a debate on the Lebanon, could we have a Government statement saying whether the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is prepared to pursue at the Security Council the appalling situation in Bourj al Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp where starvation has reached the point at which people are eating cats and dogs, and where one woman killed herself and her children rather than face starvation? May we have a statement to the effect that there might be a concerted European initiative to seek an opening up of the route which is now closed to the food convoys?

Mr. Biffen

I shall refer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs the hon. Gentleman's point. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that Foreign Office questions come top for Wednesday.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us who represent cereal farming areas would welcome as soon as possible a debate in which we could discuss agricultural policy, and especially the implications of rating agricultural land and the suggestion by the leader of the Social Democratic party that there should be a two-tier system of commodities?

Such a debate would enable the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) to reply to the president of the National Farmers Union who said that the SDP policy would annihilate farming and that the right hon. Gentleman did not know what he was talking about.

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for the trailer that he has given the House of his intended speech. It was all the more persuasive in trying to secure a commitment to such a debate. I have already told the Leader of the Opposition about the problems of a debate about the rural economy. I shall see what we can do.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that last Saturday Crown immunity ended in National Health Service hospitals and that those negligent health authorities which have allowed dirty and dangerous conditions for patients and staff will now have to put them right at an estimated cost of £50 million? However, the Government have just announced that they do not propose to allow any money for that. May we have a debate next week on that flouting of the will of Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the situation outlined by right hon. Gentleman and I certainly cannot accept his accusation that the will of Parliament has been flouted by the Government. However, I accept that he has raised an important subject and suggest that he might try his chance with an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

The great scourge of AIDS means that the Government ought to be introducing legislation immediately on tattooing, electrolysis and ear-piercing to ensure that no other avenue is available by which AIDS can be transmitted accidentally to innocent people.

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what my hon. Friend says and I shall certainly refer his point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

The European Community is taking legal action against the British Government because bathing beaches are polluted and drinking water is unsatisfactory because of nitrite concentration and it is considering taking us to court because of an over-concentration of nitrates. Is it not a deplorable scandal that the Government are risking the health of the people of Britain, or is it just another example of the fact that they do not care?

Mr. Biffen

I do not accept that, because a Community institution takes action against the British Government, the British Government are necessarily at fault.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Has my right hon. Friend considered the reasonable, if controversial, suggestion of the Paymaster General that people in Britain should now be paid on the basis of productivity, efficiency and so on? Would it be a good idea if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House looked at that in relation to the House of Commons? For example, Ministers who spend wisely should be paid more, those who vote most in the House should receive a bonus and those who sit on Committees for long hours should get extra, except for those Committees that travel abroad too much and they should have a reduction. Perhaps those who raise spurious points of order should also receive less. The possibilities for my right hon. Friend are infinite. Will he consider that and make an announcement on it?

Mr. Biffen

The longer my hon. Friend proceeded the more I began to realise that job evaluation in this place would become a highly controversial topic. I have long thought that there was a great role for the constructive non-production of legislation and that that would much enhance what benefit Parliament could confer upon people. However, I know that all those are matters not of scientific evaluation but of deep instinctive prejudice.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement about the links between South Africa and the City? Will that Minister be able to tell us the number and amount of donations given to the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party from the City in the past two or three years, especially with regard to those which have subsidiaries in South Africa? I have drawn the attention of the Leader of the House to that previously. Will he arrange for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make an additional statement with a proper report in the Library on all those firms and individuals connected with the Guinness fiasco that have given money to the Tory party?

Mr. Biffen

I was interested in the earlier manifestation of the hon. Gentleman's question about whether that would be the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I noticed that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed showed an increasing distaste for the whole nature of the question.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

He was fidgeting.

Mr. Biffen

Yes, I accept that he was fidgeting. However, I should like to consider the matter carefully before coming to what might be a snap and ill-matched judgment.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know, in the past I have drawn his attention to early day motion 310 on small dairy farms.

[That this House believes that should a reduction in milk quotas be necessary, the first 200,000 litres of a United Kingdom holding should not be included in any calculations, thus helping to ensure the future of the small family farms which have done so much for the British countryside.]

Although we await with interest a debate on the documents that have been published by my right hon.

Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, we look to him to provide the House with the earliest opportunity to discuss the proposed dairy charges.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says. He has made that point powerfully to me on previous occasions. I will bear in mind what he says, along with all the other considerations, not least those of the Leader of the Opposition, about a debate on the rural economy.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Did the Leader of the House get any joy last week when he drew to the attention of the Prime Minister, as promised, the proposal that she should make a statement to the House before she goes on her visit to the Soviet Union at the end of March so that she can be informed of all the issues that interest hon. Members, including the tremendous opportunity to expand our trade with the Soviet Union?

The British Chamber of Commerce is opening an office in Moscow, which, I believe, the Prime Minister may open. May we have an opportunity to tell her what we think she should try to achieve on her important visit?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is deeply touched by the interest and concern that the hon. Gentleman shows in her proposed trip, and that she will bear in mind what he has suggested when we come a little nearer to the point of decision.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House advise me whether we shall have an early opportunity to debate the Home Affairs Committee report on the redistribution of seats so that the blatant discrimination against England in the matter of parliamentary seats can soon be put right?

Mr. Biffen

There are certain stages in life when one has enough troubles without looking for more. However, my hon. Friend knows perfectly well that, in the first instance, there must be a Government response to the Select Committee's report, and we shall perhaps take the matter further once that has been undertaken.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister whether she will now make a statement about the proposals to amend section 2 of the Official Secrets Act in view of the fact that she wrote to me saying that there was no intention to amend or repeal the Act? However, the leading article on the front page of The Sunday Times last week stated, "Tories pledge new secrets act", and purports to say that several Ministers have given clear indications that the present Act is a disaster which should be dealt with. Can the Leader of the House ensure that that matter is referred to the House as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that earlier in the lifetime of this Administration an attempt was made to secure the reform of that legislation. However, I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who, essentially, has the responsibility for that legislation.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As the Court of Auditors in Brussels has just confirmed that a mafia organisation received a Common Market grant of 19 million lire in respect of an alleged delivery of non-existent fruit juice to the NATO headquarters in Sicily, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on that matter so that the Government can express their view on that novel use of public funds?

Mr. Biffen

That is an interesting suggestion and a rather novel diversion. However, I shall consider the matter and see what can be done.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there are many pensioners in the country and that if in fact they got their act together and voted in the right way he would be looking for another job? Is he also aware that the Government have not given this country's pensioners a fair deal? They come to my surgery on Saturday mornings to complain about what they should be getting, but are not getting, from the Government. Bearing that in mind, will the Leader of the House find time for a long-overdue debate on the problems of the elderly so that we can put them right?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot offer precisely and exactly what the hon. Gentleman seeks, but in this Chamber one rarely receives that. I can offer him a wide-ranging debate on public expenditure on Wednesday when certainly the financing of retirement pensions will be central.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate next week on the conduct of public opinion polls? Does he agree that that would provide an excellent opportunity for the public to understand how they are conducted and to consider, for example, the "Newsnight" poll conducted earlier this week which showed a resurgence in support for the alliance, but was based on the movement of 14 people and was conducted by David Woodhead who, by coincidence, happens to be a Liberal councillor?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. There may well come a day when one will be concerned to establish minimum standards for the conduct of such polling, but meanwhile there is no possibility of legislation to change those matters. My hon. Friend may like to take the opportunity of seeking an Adjournment debate, because his point has genuine topicality.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Bearing in mind the changes in forestry policy which began this week with the Government announcement and the little difficulty that we had at Question Time yesterday, will the Leader of the House reconsider carefully — this will appeal to many hon. Members on both sides—the question of who has responsibility for forestry in the House?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what the hon. Gentleman says. He has taken a long and determined interest in this topic. It links with many other aspects of the countryside, about which there is a general desire for a debate.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Licensing (Restaurant Meals) Bill is on the Order Paper for Second Reading tomorrow following objections raised to it last Friday. In view of the fact that it is a perfectly sensible, reasonable measure for the reform of our archaic licensing laws, will he consider giving Government time to assist its passage through this House if further objections are raised?

Mr. Biffen

Being a coward, of course I shall consider granting Government time, but I should not like my hon. Friend to be optimistic about the outcome of that consideration.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread anxiety in Britain about the appalling circumstances facing Palestinians in a refugee camp in the Lebanon? Did he read about the Palestinian woman who yesterday committed suicide with her children rather than face starvation? Does he recognise the need for an early statement on the steps that the British Government can take to ease the situation?

Secondly, has the right hon. Gentleman any latest information about the British correspondent who was beaten up by KGB agents this morning in Moscow?

Mr. Biffen

I should like to append the hon. Gentleman's first comments to those of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in making representations to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. I have nothing to say about his second point, because I am in no position to speak.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Local Government Act 1986 (Amendment) Bill is about to complete its passage in the other place today? Will he consider whether the objectives of the Bill should command the support of the whole House as it seeks to outlaw excessive expenditure on homosexual and lesbian groups by Left-wing councils? When he has looked at it, I am sure that he will seek to give it a fair wind through this House. What will he do about it?

Mr. Biffen

I have an instinctive sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend is putting, but I am not sure that it has total, unanimous support in the House, notwithstanding the phraseology that he used. I will certainly bear his point in mind.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister who is to wind up the broadcasting debate on Monday, to explain the chemistry by which the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Lochbroom, sitting alone in the Crown Office, without talking to any ministerial colleagues, apparently reached crucial decisions about an interpretation of the public interest and official security in Britain? Will the Minister explain why Scottish law was flouted in not taking into account the feelings of the victim, in this case the Foreign Office, which had ministerial responsibility and was up to its neck in it, with the Foreign Secretary cancelling engagements with Philip Habib, cancelling visits to the Middle East Association, and being involved in the very issue upon which Lord Cameron made decisions? Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the precedent of Lord Elwyn-Jones, who consulted the then Mr. Michael Stewart in relation to the prosecution of the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) in relation to the Daily Telegraph case over Nigeria?

Mr. Biffen

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are brought to the attention of my hon. Friend who will be replying to Monday's debate.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

May we have a debate on the lobbying tactics of outside organisations such as the East Midlands Association of District Councils, which came to the House of Commons yesterday? If my right hon. Friend could have spared the time, he would have been horrified at the lobbying and misrepresentations that were put forward by the chairman of Leicester city council's housing committee, Councillor David Middleton, who cast the most amazing slurs on and said amazing untruths about the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction and the Housing and Planning Act, which caused great concern to my constituents. Those lies were totally without foundation and have caused unnecessary concern to anyone who lives in a council house. They were given over to the lie that council tenants may be removed at a moment's notice, and that they will not have a say in how their property will be managed. Is this not shocking? Should we not have an opportunity to curtail lobbying, particularly when it is misleading?

Mr. Biffen

At least my hon. Friend did not have dinner with him. There are many ways of offensive lobbying, but the gastronomic way is the one that I have always found most tedious. My hon. Friend has made his point effectively, but I hope that, on reflection, he will not feel it necessary to have a debate.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Is the Leader of the House aware that in 1986, with the approval of the Government, British Aerospace issued a brochure at the 1986 Farnborough air show which gave details of the spy satellite that it was building? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Soviet attaché was present at that air show and that he can read English? Therefore, will he ask the Prime Minister to condemn the disclosures of British Aerospace as being irresponsible and damaging to national security?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what the hon. Lady says. I shall refer her remarks to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does my right hon. Friend recall the triumph of the Fontainebleu agreement, in which it was stated quite categorically that we have finally achieved total financial discipline within the EEC? Is my right hon. Friend confident enough to have a debate on the matter to elicit from the Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the undertaking that no further moneys will be given to the EEC during this year or next under any guise, that the VAT ceiling will not be increased and that anything masquerading as an inter-governmental agreement will not be undertaken to circumvent the excellent outcome of the Fontainebleu agreement which was so lobbied by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues at the time?

Mr. Biffen

I think that I can best help my hon. Friend—"hope deferred"—by saying that there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss relationships with the European Community in specific terms in the weeks and months ahead. On Wednesday of this coming week there will be a debate on the Government's expenditure plans, which relate to our contributions to the European Community. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to make his arguments then.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

I refer the Leader of the House to the human tragedy being worked out in the Palestinian camps. Is he aware specifically that the President of France has called for international action by the western European powers and that the leader of the Palestinians has called for United Nations action? Given that background, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the need for a statement by the Foreign Secretary? Will he also make sure that the Foreign Secretary understands that the House will be grateful if the British Government took part in the maximum possible diplomatic efforts?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. I responded in a forthcoming manner to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's name is included when that point is passed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend agree to an early debate on the environment, particularly the need to keep open spaces in built-up areas, so that Ealing Labour council's uncaring proposals to build on the Ealing Green high school playing field in a built-up area, which will take away amenities from children and other people, can be discussed properly and condemned, just as the council was at a public meeting of nearly 500 people in my constituency on Monday?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that the debate on the rural economy will not be particularly directed to the green spaces, such as there are, in Ealing. I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that, although the House may accept that the arrangements for notifying the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of major defence projects of a national security nature may have not been breached in the case of Zircon, I believe that the Ministry of Defence deliberately misled the Comptroller and Auditor General? Is the Leader of the House aware of the view that is expressed by a few people who seem to know about these matters that part of the Zircon expenditure was attributed to the Trident programme? That is the way that expenditure has been hidden in the public expenditure White Paper. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that a full statement is made and that written questions that I have tabled, which forensically examine the matter to establish the truth, are answered fully and honestly?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious challenge that deliberate and misleading answers have been given to him by a Government Department. That is a direct accusation either against the Minister involved or against civil servants. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

Will my right hon. Friend provide time next week to the Leader of the Opposition so that the Labour party can make a statement to clear up a matter that is causing a good deal of confusion and uncertainty in the House—who is the Opposition spokesman on employment matters? Is it the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) or the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould)?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps we should wait to see what the performance this afternoon is like before coming to any premature conclusions.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

May I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is fully apprised of the need for urgent consideration of the appalling sufferings of the Palestinians and that he will urge on his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary the need for some immediate help to be provided to them, either some sort of defence of their position or some sort of international intervention in terms of food and economic help?

Mr. Biffen

I shall make sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is made aware of the deep feelings that have been expressed on the subject this afternoon.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of remaining order No. 3 relating to short speeches. When may we expect a debate and decision on this matter?

Mr. Biffen

There are a few procedural matters to be cleared up to ensure that graveyard unanimity, which is so beloved of the usual channels. Once that has been done, I hope that we can proceed.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the discourtesy that is being shown to some of our naval ships visiting United Kingdom ports? I am particularly thinking of a visit of HMS Conqueror, the nuclear-powered submarine, which was so famous in the Falklands conflict, which is visiting Southampton. Unfortunately, it is being shown a great deal of discourtesy by the Labour-controlled council and has been given no civil reception. Should not this matter be debated in the House so that we can have an overall policy for warships, which may or may not have nuclear weapons on board, visiting United Kingdom ports?

Mr. Biffen

That is a matter which some may consider modest but which I think is important in showing the broad attitudes of those who are seeking public affection in the coming general election. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's point is given as much publicity as possible.