HC Deb 19 February 1987 vol 110 cc1074-82 4.27 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 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.

TUESDAY 24 FEBRUARY — Remaining stages of the Ministry of Defence Police Bill [Lords].

Motion on EC documents relating to the Commission's proposals for the provision of free food to the most needy. Details of the documents concerned will be given in the Official Report.

Motion on the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order.

WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUA:RY — Opposition Day (9th Allotted Day). Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Priorities for the Elderly". Afterwards there will be a debate entitled "Health Care and Services for the Elderly". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on the annual report from the European Court of Auditors for 1985. Details will be given in the Official Report.

THURSDAY 26 FEBRUARY — Consideration of Lords amendments to the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Bill.

FRIDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 2 MARCH—There will be a debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

[Tuesday 24 February Relevant European Documents

  1. (a) Unnumbered Intervention food to meet hardship Wednesday 25 February
  2. (b) OJ C321 The European Court of Auditors' Report for 1985

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 22-vii (1986–87), para 1 and HC 22-viii (1986–87), para 2
  2. (b) HC 22-ix (1986–87), para 1.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I thank the Leader of the House for granting a debate on Welsh affairs as near as possible to St. David's day?

We have just had a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on Leyland Truck, which gave us news of a £750 million write-off, major job losses and further industrial retreat under the Government, all to provide a bargain package for a foreign competitor that will strip the company, if not shut the company or substantial parts of it.

In view of those circumstances, and the continuing pressures on Bedford vehicles at Bedford and Luton, and other difficulties in the motor vehicle industry, can I ask the right hon. Gentleman to provide us soon with the opportunity, in Government time, for a debate on the motor vehicle industry in the United Kingdom?

There are serious implications for the Scottish economy in the closure of the Caterpillar tractor plant at Uddingston, near Glasgow, with the loss of 1,200 jobs. I understand that the Prime Minister's approach to the company has been rebuffed. Two weeks ago I asked if the Leader of the House would arrange a debate on the issue in Government time. Will he now do that?

Today, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the House of Lords is debating its Select Committee report on research and development in Britain. In view of the serious conditions arising from under-funding, the brain drain and proposed further cuts, and the grave warnings which were given yesterday by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, will the Leader of the House see that we have a debate in the near future in this House on all these matters, that are of great national interest, as one of his right hon. Friends earlier asked the Prime Minister?

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange, as soon as possible, a debate on the proposed privatisation of Rolls-Royce? The Government are selling off the best known name in engineering—nationalised at a previous date by a Government which the right hon. Gentleman supported— and selling it off for next to nothing. It is vital that the House is able to give its view on this further effort to rip off important national British assets.

In the light of yesterday's announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment that he is scrapping more of the Government's pernicious legislation affecting local government services, will the Leader of the House arrange for a series of statements by Ministers to tell the House what other legislation is to be scrapped? Such a move would no doubt help the Leader of the House by giving him the time to allow me and other right hon. and hon. Members to raise the. questions which are of real importance to the people of this country.

Mr. Biffen

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the restrained and courteous way in which he put his six points, doubtless within the terms of the Wakeham-Foster concordat on revised relations. I accept his congratulations on having the Welsh affairs debate as near St. David's day as possible. Indeed, if it were on St. David's day, we would all be here on a Sunday. That reform would not have marked me out as a welcome innovator.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the statement which we have just heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It was an important statement which was highly welcome to the Government. The right hon. Gentleman rightly observed that the announcement involves, among other things, a substantial write-down in Treasury finance. I shall, of course, consider the possibilities of having a debate on the motor industry, as the right hon. Gentlman requested.

The right hon. Gentleman requested a debate on the closure of the Caterpillar plant in Scotland and on research and related topics, not least in the context of the consideration today of those subjects by their Lordships. Both matters are of general interest throughout the House. We might consider through the usual channels what facilities we can provide.

I note also the right hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on Rolls-Royce. That is also a matter that could most profitably be pursued through the usual channels.

Finally, I have to dissent from the right hon. Gentleman. He said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment had announced the scrapping of legislation. I thought that a great deal of my right hon. Friend's time was devoted to saying that it was only postponed. I have no wish to speculate on how these matters will proceed, but I suspect that many Conservative Back Benchers would carefully attend to these topics in some general election at some future date. The request for a series of statements in relation to the scrapping of legislation is unnecessary, and I think that it was put forward in a mischievous sense.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a debate on the teaching of English in our schools because, under the new GCSE proposals, it appears that that will be phased out? After all, is not history a pillar of our society and to be ignored at our peril? May we hear about King Alfred and the cakes, about Queen Elizabeth I inspecting the troops at Tilbury and, of course, about those innumerable occasions when we beat the French?

Mr. Kinnock

It would not include next Saturday.

Mr. Biffen

It should go on record that the Leader of the Opposition said that it would not include next Saturday, because that would mark out just what are his powers of prophecy.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In the context of our present education reforms, especially in the GCSE, there is a lively interest in the manner in which English is taught. I shall draw my hon. Friend's points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Will the Leader of the House try to find time for a debate on the prayer in the names of my right hon. Friends the Members for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) against the order imposing charges on milk producers for unsolicited inspections by officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Many Conservative Members have signed early-day motion 601, which draws attention to these extra charges.

[That this House calls upon the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, not to impose charges on milk producers for unsolicited inspections by his officials which are any higher than the charges imposed on restaurants and cafes for visits by public health inspectors, or on factories for unsolicited inspections by the Health and Safety Executive.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that these charges are of considerable concern throughout the House and that the dairy industry is very worried about this unnecessary imposition?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman's long-standing commitment to the dairy industry is well known. On that basis, of course, I look charitably on his remarks and say that this matter perhaps could be considered through the usual channels.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip—Northwood)

I remind my right hon. Friend that, whereas certain parts of the legislative programme can be judiciously postponed, the same does not apply to the space programme? Will my right hon. Friend persuade our right hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology to come to the House at an early date to announce his Department's decisions on the British national space programme, as a report from the British National Space Centre has been sitting on his desk for many weeks?

Mr. Biffen

No doubt my hon. Friend will have noted that the Department of Trade and Industry is the first Department listed for questions on Wednesday. I shall refer his comments to my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for space technology.

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

May we have a debate on disablement in addition to the debate which we had last Tuesday? I am sorry that during that debate I said that it was all about the Prime Minister's veracity. I said that in the heat of the moment, and I should like to withdraw it completely. The debate was about the Prime Minister's selective use of statistics. We want to answer those selective statistics in a further debate.

Mr. Biffen

It is characteristic of the right hon. Gentleman's generosity that he should seek to withdraw words that he thought might prove offensive to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I give him as a solace the fact that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Therefore, if a statistical analysis is at the centre of the dispute, I think that we should all be rather generous.

I shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's other point, but he has already drawn my attention to the fact that we debated the topic only last week. I know that it is one that raises general interest in the House.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the concern expressed by my constituents and others about excessive development, especially in the south-east of England, and future planning policy. They are especially worried in the light of recent speeches by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on behalf of the official Opposition, in which it appears that the Labour party is in close alignment with the developers to continue a policy of excessive development. May we have a debate at an early opportunity so that we can discuss the matter further?

Mr. Biffen

This is a matter of national concern but, even more, one of regional concern in the area part of which my hon. Friend represents. I shall certainly bear my hon. Friend's point in mind.

Mr. James Hamilton (Motherwell, North)

Bearing in mind that the Prime Minister has written to the Caterpillar tractor company in America about the drastic closure of the Caterpillar plant in my constituency, will the right hon. Gentleman seriously consider the request made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for a debate on this serious matter? As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, 1,221 people at the factory have been made redundant and the factory has closed. In an area in which 22.1 per cent. of the population is unemployed, surely the subject warrents a debate so that we can come to a conclusion and retain the factory.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman very much appreciates the concern and interest that is being shown in the Caterpillar plant closure by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I shall bear the hon. Gentleman's remarks in mind in the context of the answer that I gave the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House that Monday's debate will be on a motion to adjourn the House? Will he confirm that there will just be a discussion on the report in general and that no decisions will be made? Does my right hon. Friend expect a vote to be taken?

Mr Biffen

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The motion is drawn in such terms because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has said that he wishes to hear the views of the House before he takes a decision. In those circumstances, I cannot see what purpose a vote on a motion for the Adjournment of the House will achieve.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is there any prospect of a debate on road safety? Is the Leader of the House aware that there is great anguish in my constituency at the death of Lisa Szymczak, aged 14, on a road where some of us have been trying for a long time to get safety measures adopted for the children at both of the major schools in that area, but that Government funding has been quite inadequate? The local authority has provided only a small number of crossings each year, as opposed to the large number that are required, and everyone seems to push the blame on to someone else. How many more tragedies will there be before the Government will help local authorities to deal with those matters?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman raises a topical matter. Doubtless he will have noted in any case that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is first for questions on Monday. I suggest that, at least initially, he tries his luck on that occasion.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Lexester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the power and abuses of local authorities? Will he especially join me in offering sympathy to the Leader of the Opposition because, without having a Local Government Bill before it, the House has been unable to curb some of the Left-wing abuses that have occurred in my local authority, which now has a Nicaragua training officer at a salary of £9,216? That is the current arrangement in Leicester. There is a "go gay" policy in Leicester. The rates increase has been reduced to 4.9 per cent. as a good electioneering point.

On the campaign for more houses in Leicester, I discovered in a parliamentary question that Leicester has 947 empty council houses. Will my right hon. Friend therefore provide time for us to highlight the obvious abuses of Left-wing loony councils that spend our money as ratepayers to promote Labour party propaganda on the rates?

Mr. Biffen

The weekly unfolding drama of Leicester matches anything that can be produced by "EastEnders". I will consider my hon. Friend's request that Government time be made available for such a debate, but in the meantime I hope that he will also try to see what opportunities he can take elsewhere in the parliamentary programme.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

When the Leader of the House reconsiders through the usual channels the need for a debate on the privatisation of Rolls-Royce will he also take into account the importance of our aerospace industry, the effect of privatisation on the people employed in that industry and its effect on widespread areas of the country such as north-east Lancashire, which suffered drastically when that company was last in the private sector?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point that the aerospace industry in itself might possibly be an appropriate topic for a debate, since that would incorporate Rolls-Royce, but those are matters for further consideration.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern and that of the public on the position of the family and the fact that it is under repeated attack from many sides? Is he aware that I held a conference in my constituency on that theme—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please relate his point to the need for a debate?

Mr. Greenway

I am coming to that, Mr. Speaker.

Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a debate on that topic as a conference on that theme in my constituency last Saturday addressed by Cardinal Basil Hume, a professor on the subject of AIDS and the leaders of the Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Free Church communities with Bishop Maurice Wood, drew an audience of hundreds over many hours. It highlighted the concern felt there and across the country on this important subject?

Mr. Biffen

Of courser j 3–8 my hon. Friend is absolutely right in identifying the role of the family in the context of many of the social problems that now beset the world of politics. I cannot immediately offer the prospect of a debate in Government time upon that topic, but I shall certainly bear those points in mind.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

I join my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in welcoming the Welsh day debate on 2 March. As the Leader of the House is aware, I have had some experience of the speeches of Conservative Members on Wales. In the light of that, will he take note of his motion on the Order Paper today on short speeches? Will he advance that somewhat further so we might perhaps have a decision about that earlier than seems to be the case at the present time?

Mr. Biffen

I confess to lethargy at once, but it is lethargy at what is possibly the fruitless task of seeking a broad measure of unanimity before that proposal was written into Standing Orders as opposed to merely a Sessional Order. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's spur.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

I know that my right hon. Friend is a keen student of European Community matters. He must be aware that, as this year unfolds, the budgetary problems in the Community are likely to become more acute. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to give the House time so that it may give its support to the Government in their strong stand against any further expansion of the European Community budget, and especially to express its desire that there should be no so-called intergovernmental agreements that fall outside the budgetary arrangements and the Fontainebleau agreement in order to continue strict financial discipline within the Community?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point; it is probably true that most of our Community debates take place within the framework broadly suggested by the Scrutiny Committee, but I shall look at that point further.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On that very topic, on the third debate on Wednesday next relating to the EEC auditors' report, is the Leader of the House aware that that massive report is qualification on qualification of those accounts? Will he, by seeking the assistance of the Comptroller and Auditor General, see that the motion that goes down in relation to that document reflects the contents and flavour of its criticism?

Mr. Biffen

I was not aware, but I am certainly not surprised and I will look at the point about the motion.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Will my right hon. Friend consider providing a debate in the next few weeks in prime time on the subject of AIDS? I know that there was one debate at the turn of the year, but things have moved on since then through the Government's publicity campaign and the increasing awareness of the public of this dread disease and the anxieties that arise. In all the circumstances, Parliament should have the opportunity of considering the position as it is now.

Mr. Biffen

I take note of my hon. Friend's request. No one can deny that it is a most important topic, but perhaps for the moment I could leave it there.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging an urgent debate on political asylum and refugee status, especially in the light of the extraordinary attempts and lengths to which the Government have gone over the past six days to expel 58 Tamil refugees, including several families, at Heathrow? If he can arrange such a debate, will he, as a preface to it, get the Foreign Secretary to telephone the high commission in Colombo to send a written report to the Minister of State, Home Office? The right hon. and learned Gentleman could then no longer say at the Dispatch Box and outside the Chamber that those people have no reasonable fear of persecution or that they are package tour political refugees. That high commission could tell him that, in recent weeks, 15 Tamil bodies a day are discovered in Jaffna in the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka and that the position is not much better in the civil war area of the east.

Mr. Biffen

I have no reason to doubt the good faith or the accuracy of any remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary on this matter. At present the matter is before the courts. I do not wish to comment further, except to say that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has acted in the public interest and with widespread public support. I can offer no prospects of an early debate.

Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)

May I commend to my right hon. Friend early-day motion 424, which he will know is supported on both sides of the House and which deals with community care for the adult mentally ill and mentally handicapped people.

[That this House, noting the Government's response to the Report of the Select Committee on Social Services on Community Care for Adult Mentally Ill and Mentally Handicapped People, HC, 1984–85, 13, calls for an early debate on the replies to the Committee's recommendations, in view of the widespread and continuing concern.]

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that that unanimous report deals with one of the most important health care issues before us today and does not deserve simply to lie upon the shelf'? It addresses some of the most important considerations before the National Health Service today.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in identifying the importance of that topic. In the immediate future anyway, there is no available Government time for a debate upon the subject, but I shall bear his point in mind.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to study early-day motion 626 concerning the treatment of asylum seekers?

[That this House is alarmed that the Home Secretary tried to remove 58 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers from Britain after refusing to allow honourable Members to place stops on their removal in accordance with the procedure laid down by this House; is further alarmed that after notification of their intention to seek judicial recourse he further tried to remove them; notes with satisfaction that this attempt to circumvent the due process of law was thwarted; is concerned at Her Majesty's Government's attempts to renege on their obligations to asylum seekers; and demands an undertaking that there will be no recurrence of this disgraceful episode.]

It has already been signed by 16 hon. Members and it draws attention to the way in which the Home Secretary and the Minister of State, Home Office sought to circumvent the due process of law in seeking to remove 58 asylum seekers from this country before their case could be properly considered.

Does he not feel that, in view of what happened to those 58 people and the condition in which many Tamil people are living in Sri Lanka, it is essential that the matter be debated? Is he not also aware that unless there is some confidence that the British Government are prepared to uphold their obligations to the United Nations charter concerning people seeking asylum, it is essential for the matter to be debated in the House so that the Government's position can be clarified?

Mr. Biffen

I am fully aware of the early-day motion on the treatment of asylum seekers in the name of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). However, I am sure that he will appreciate that my reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) has covered the points he has raised.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Does the Leader of the House recall a most unhelpful reply that he gave me to a parliamentary question about the use of Westminster hall? Does he not think it scandalous that such a large space should be unused for so long? Will he arrange for a debate so that we may discuss some of the proposals for a better use of that facility, certainly by some of the arts groups in London such as dancers, musicians and painters who would like to use the space? The people of London and visitors could come to see it and we could turn Westminster hall back into the thriving heart of the Palace of Westminster that it once used to be.

Mr. Biffen

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to be under any misapprehension. I now give a personal view; I think that one of the great attractions of Westminster hall is how little it is used.

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

In the light of the publicly declared concern by the Leader of the House on developments in the City over the past 12 months, will he arrange for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make an interim statement as to the nature of inquiries being carried out by the Department of Trade and Industry inspectors into various City institutions?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise that subject when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is top of the list for questions on Wednesday.