HC Deb 22 January 1987 vol 108 cc1027-34 3.37 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)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 26 JANUARY—Timetable motion on the Local Government Finance Bill followed by completion of remaining stages of the Bill.

TUESDAY 27 JANUARY—Opposition Day (6th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Failure of the City to serve the Nation".

Motions relating to the Dockyard Services (Devonport) (Designation and Appointed Day) Order and the Dockyard Services (Rosyth) (Designation and Appointed Day) Order.

WEDNESDAY 28 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Ministry of Defence Police Bill (Lords) followed by Second Reading of the Parliamentary and Health Service Commissioners Bill.

Motion on the London Regional Transport (Levy) Order.

THURSDAY 29 JANUARY—There will be a debate on a Government motion to take note of the White Paper on developments in the European Community January-June 1986 (Cmnd. No. 9911).

FRIDAY 30 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 2 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the Royal Navy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

The Leader of the House has announced that the Government will next week introduce a guillotine motion to curtail scrutiny on a local government Bill that is highly technical and contains unprecedented provisions that place the Secretary of State for the Environment above the law and afford him both retrospective and future protection from further legal challenges. How can the Government justify proceeding with such haste when they have already tabled over 40 substantial amendments to their Bill and are even now compiling more? Will those further amendments be tabled today so that they can be properly scrutinised and, if necessary, amended on Report? If they are not tabled today, how can the House fairly give attention to them on Monday of next week?

Today's Order Paper gives notice of a further rate support grant Bill. I understand that the Vote Office is saying that the Bill will not be available to hon. Members until tomorrow. That treats the House with contempt, and makes nonsense of the Government's claim last year that the Rate Support Grant Act that received Royal Assent in October would clarify the law on rate support grant settlements. All this creates a climate of great uncertainty for local government of all political colours, and makes the delivery of vital community services even harder than it has been hitherto. Is this not another example of the incompetence and arrogance of the Secretary of State for the Environment? Will he, even at this late stage, reconsider the way in which the House is to proceed with this legislation, and withdraw the guillotine for next week?

Mr. Biffen

We all have our distinctive rhetoric to fit a situation, and what the right hon. Gentleman calls "curtailing scrutiny" I would describe as proceeding to measured debate on this important Bill. Much time has already been taken on the issue, and it will be possible on Monday for the House adequately to consider the contents and the arguments.

As to the rate support grant, the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the prospects for the consideration of the legislation will not be fulfilled.

I shall look into the right hon. Gentleman's point about the amendments to the Local Government Finance Bill, and see what can be done to meet it.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to arrange a debate on industrial relations? Given that the former chairman of the Brent trades council, who was largely responsible for engineering the Grunwick strike in 1976, has now turned up again as the campaign leader in the Devonport dockyard, would not the interests of the economy be served by discovering what is behind such a move?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises an interesting and specific point to exemplify his general concern. Industrial relations would be a good topic for debate if the House had that amount of time, but I can hardly admit that we have such time when I am announcing a guillotine. Perhaps my hon. Friend might seek an Adjournment debate on the narrower point.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Has the Leader of the House had time to reflect on the reports that the South African Government have had discussions with the Isle of Man to pursue the taking over of the freeport so that they can evade international trade sanctions? Will the right hon. Gentleman be able to report to the House on this matter in the next few days, or can we expect a statement?


I shall look into the matter of a statement and let the hon. Gentleman know the result.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to an early debate in connection with early-day motion No. 390? [That this House regrets Her Majesty's Government's decision not to award the £1.41 weekly increase to elderly police widows; notes that the total cost of the increase would have been less than £500,000 per annum; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to review urgently the decision, especially as this was the amount agreed by the Police Negotiating Committee.]

It refers to police reserved rate widows, whose average age is 84 years. Since agreement was reached by the Police Negotiating Board on 25 February, 1986, 1,000 of those pensioners have died. This is an urgent matter that should receive the compassion of the House.

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. Initially, perhaps it would be helpful if I referred the matter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read articles in the newspapers about the serious crisis in London and other cities as a result of the failure of the water system? It has been reported that up to 1 million Londoners are not getting a proper water supply, water tankers are having to take water into hospitals and over 90 water mains burst every day. As this is due purely and simply to the Government's policies not to allow water authorities to invest in infrastructures, to reduce borrowing requirements and, when authorities such as Thames Water make a profit, to turn authority chairmen into overt tax collectors, will the Leader of the House arrange a statement on the crisis early next week?

Mr. Biffen

I am not confident that the responsibilities can so simply and sharply be allocated as the hon. Gentleman suggested. Of course, I shall mention the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

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

May we again have a debate on the philosophy of the future of the Westminster Parliament in relation to the European Parliament? Is my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House aware that Sir Henry Plumb, whom we were all pleased to see elected President of the European Parliament—we were almost as pleased as he was—said two alarming things upon his election? One was that he was born an Englishman and wished to die a European, but he also said that the European view must prevail over national views if the European Parliament is to make real political progress as the legitimate and sovereign state of Europe. Does he not agree that those views would reduce Westminster to the status of a parish council? Should not this Parliament express the clear view to Sir Henry, before he becomes too entrenched in Europe, that he was born English, that many of us want to remain English and we shall fight to remain English?

Mr. Biffen

I note that my hon. Friend stands in the way of Sir Henry and his ambitions. That is a happy situation.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, as a result of the repeal of the Truck Acts which came into force on 1 January, many hundreds of thousands of people now have bank accounts who never had them before? While the country is quite rightly concentrating on major inequities of the City, we have not had a debate about the way in which ordinary banks are entitled to charge ordinary people interest that can range up to 25 per cent. without informing them how much is being charged. May we soon have a statement from the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs or from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, or at least a warning to people to be careful about how they are treated by their local banks?

Mr. Biffen

I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for drawing our attention to the fact that countless thousands of working class people today have savings habits that once were the possession of the bourgeoisie. I shall certainly draw the hon. and learned Gentleman's point to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

In view of the great importance to many hon. Members of the Common Market agricultural settlement shortly before Christmas, will my right hon. Friend say whether next Thursday's debate will involve agriculture and, if so, whether an Agriculture Minister will speak in it?


obviously, the scope of the debate essentially will be within the judgment of the Chair. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friends to the anxiety that my hon. Friend expressed. I am grateful to him for making the point about Thursday's debate. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark) will be able to argue all that he succinctly said and at great and welcome length on that occasion.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the Leader of the House assure us that, during the debate about the Devonport dockyard order, an opportunity will be afforded to discuss the company's refusal to accept responsibility for the operation of Devonport dockyard and the radioactive wastes already stored there? To facilitate a full discussion on that aspect, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that, before the debate, full details are released about the Government's intention to build a rad-waste dissolution treatment plant close to Devonport dockyard and what the Government intend to do with it after that is done?

Mr. Biffen

Clearly, the width of the debate will depend upon the judgment of the Chair. I have a sufficiently robust faith in the hon. Gentleman's skills as a parliamentarian to know that he will make whatever speech he intends to make. I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham. Yardley)

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House note early-day motion 439 urging the introduction of identity cards with bearers' photographs?

[That this House notes the use of identity cards in various Commonwealth, European and other countries, and the requirement in Northern Ireland that driving licences shall carry the driver's photograph; believes that the universal issue of identity cards in the United Kingdom would assist the prevention and detection of crime, including social security fraud and illegal immigration and that, far from lessening civil liberty, it would protect the law-abiding from troublesome and unnecessary inquiries by police and security officers; and therefore urges the Secretary of State for the Home Department to consider the early introduction of identity cards bearing the holder's photograph.]

Will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department so that an early statement can be made and the House given an early opportunity to debate this matter further?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend refers to a highly controversial topic, but I shall most certainly convey his request to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Further to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), will the Leader of the House accept that there is a great deal of concern about the revelations in today's Independent about the secret deal between the Isle of Man Government and the Government of South Africa to set up some kind of sanctions-busting operation? Since the freeport is set up with the authority of Her Majesty's Treasury and since the Home Office has ultimate responsibility for the good government of the islands, when some scandal like this happens there ought, surely, to be some arrangement for the appropriate Minister to make a statement to this House of Parliament so that we can ask him questions.

Mr. Biffen

I cannot in any sense endorse the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric. I have already said that I shall refer to my right hon. Friend the point that has been raised. In doing so, I shall also draw his attention to the point that has just been made.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

My right hon. Friend will recall the debate last Friday on television licences for the elderly. However he views the outcome of that debate, it has created a great deal of resentment among elderly people. In particular, they have mentioned that hotels pay for only one television licence, yet they may have many hundreds of rooms with television sets. There is also a great deal of unrest about the structure for the collection of the licence fee. I think that it is time that we began a major review of this subject.

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I shall certainly convey those considerations to my hon. Friends.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 473 on the anniversary of the Wapping dispute.

[That this House applauds the fortitude and resolve displayed during the last 12 months by the men and women on the Wapping picket lines; notes that in successive ballots they have rejected offers of redundancy hand-outs; supports the call for Mike Hicks to be released from prison as advanced by the recent Labour Party National Executive Council resolution; condemns the Tory-backed Murdoch's systematic use of money earned by British workers to finance his multi-national business ventures; and believes that the House of Commons should debate these issues of civil liberty, undemocratic control of the media and workers' rights.]

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether there is to be an early opportunity for this dispute to be debated in the House so that the Government can tell us why they have failed to intervene in the dispute, which up to now has cost London ratepayers about £14 million in excess police costs? Indeed, it is no more than a very expensive exercise to get filthy, disgusting Murdoch rags out of Wapping.

Mr. Biffen

I note that that is the hon. Gentleman's jaundiced view of such a great and historic newspaper as The Times. However, I am disinclined to accept his view that there is a Government responsibility on anything like the scale that he suggests. No provision has been made for Government time to be devoted to this subject. It will be interesting to see whether the Opposition provide any of their time for such a debate.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to note the publication today of a document by Lincolnshire county council and others on the safe disposal of nuclear waste? It relates to Britain's method of dealing with it and to the methods used by France, Sweden and West Germany. Bearing in mind the widespread concern of many people in this country about the disposal of low-level nuclear waste, not least the concern of my Newark constituents, and bearing also in mind the fact that we have not debated this matter for probably a year, will my right hon. Friend offer a debate on this subject to assuage the anxieties of many hon. Members?

Mr. Biffen

I acknowledge at once the importance of this topic and the skill and pertinacity with which my hon. Friend has represented the interests of his constituents. There is no immediate prospect of a debate on this subject, but I shall certainly bear his observations in mind.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

In view of the failure at Question Time of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to clear up the considerable confusion about the handout of intervention stores of food to elderly and needy people, both in relation to the quantity to be distributed and the manner in which it is to be distributed, and in view of the worry that there must be about the ability of voluntary organisations to distribute these stores of food to needy and elderly people all over Britain, may we expect next week an oral statement on this subject from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Mr. Biffen

Of course I shall pass that request to my right hon. Friend, but I should observe that on Thursday we will debate developments in the European Community, and it may well be that in his speech the hon. Gentleman can—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman takes a typically reserved view about the success of the Government or the success of the Community. He must be immensely pessimistic if he does not think that his arguments will have matured by Thursday.

Mr. Andrew McKay (Berkshire, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a sad yet significant occasion when a party feels that it is necessary to relaunch itself? We learn from the newspapers that the Liberal party and the SDP, which are somethimes in alliance, propose to relaunch themselves next week. Through the normal channels, will my right hon. Friend find an opportunity, if not next week certainly the week after, to allow a Liberal-SDP Supply day so that they can explain why it is necessary for then to relaunch themselves and so that other hon. Members can make contributions which may well be of assistance to those parties?

Mr. Biffen

That is a fair, charitable and Christian request. I am all that lies between the request and its being fulfilled. I will of course draw it to the attention of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), because I know that he will be as anxious as anybody to explain why a low flying aircraft engaged in intermittent and wholly random attacks can ever claim to be that highflying success promised by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins).

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Since the word "hypocrisy" is out of order in this House, how would the Leader of the House describe a situation in which the Prime Minister has 13 television sets at Downing street and pays no licence fee at all, while at the same time she sends her Ministers, including the Leader of the House, to vote down a Bill which would have provided some assistance to many pensioners? Is it not disgraceful that the payroll vote was used last Friday against a private Member's Bill? Does the Leader of the House accept that what happened on Friday is understandably not appreciated by a large number of people in Britain?

Mr. Biffen

If it will add to the sum total of human happiness, I shall make the investigations that the hon. Gentleman asks for. Meanwhile, in a spirit of compatibility perhaps he would like to tell the House on an appropriate occasion why he was happy in February 1969 to join in a Labour payroll vote with members of a Labour Government to defeat the improved pension provisions for disabled people.

Mr. Winnick

Fifty years ago.

Mr. Biffen

There is no point in the hon. Gentleman saying, "Fifty years ago". We know that he is faithful to Socialism and has not changed one jot in those 50 years.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

The announcement by my right hon. Friend of a debate on the Royal Navy is welcome. May I draw his attention to last week's request and my request, repeated today, for a debate on the merchant marine, shipping and shipbuilding and all that goes with them, especially in the light of the strike by Austin Pickersgill shipyard workers at Sunderland which began on 5 December, finished after five weeks, and started again yesterday.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes a point of both general and specific interest to the House. Clearly the terms of debate for Thursday will be set by the Chair. However, there is a good case for arguing the interdependence of the marine fleet and the Royal Navy and I wish my hon. Friend all success when he develops that argument.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I am always reluctant to curtail Back-Bench opportunities during business questions, but may I ask for brief contributions, please?

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the wisdom of holding a major defence debate late on Monday week? Is he not aware that one of the most popular and convivial Members of the House, the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), was taken so seriously ill yesterday that he was unable to present his private notice question? Because his illness must be of the most serious nature, would it not be fairer to the right hon. Gentleman to give him sufficient time to be able to recover rather than have him undergo the rigours of such a major debate at such short notice?

Mr. Biffen

We assume that the Lobby would observe its normal conventions.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early statement from the Home Secretary on the Metropolitan police decision to tackle racial attacks in Newham and in the London borough of Ealing? Is he aware of the importance of that, in view of the fact that it is said on high authority that Ealing Labour council is considering refusing to allow the police to deliver literature relating to their work in that operation to council property, including council houses? Is he also aware that Ealing Labour council has so far totally failed to meet the Ealing community relations council since it was elected, although there were regular meetings between those two bodies when Ealing council was Conservative controlled? The Conservative council cared about race relations.

Mr. Biffen

Although we have a debate upon the European Community next week, we do not have a debate upon Ealing. My hon. Friend puts me in some difficulties on this matter, but I shall certainly report his anxieties to my right hon. and hon. Friends who have a responsibility in this matter.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern and that of many people in Britain about the continuing abuse of diplomatic immunity? Does he think that it is time to have a debate to look at the terrible figures that show that in the past five years more than 50 diplomats who have been charged with offences have managed to get out of the country without suffering the consequences of their acts? Does my right hon. Friend agree that diplomats should behave as gentlemen and that that should apply to the spouse of a registered diplomat. When they come to Britain they must represent their country responsibly and if they break the law they should suffer the consequences in Britain?

Mr. Biffen

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He will appreciate that that is a matter of some delicacy in our relationship with those who work here as diplomats. However, I shall convey his points to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that the British Steel Corporation has moved into profit for the first time For 10 years? I remind my right hon. Friend that state subsidies to steel industries have not been allowed since December 1985 and in that light would he consider the Opposition's proposals to put a 1 per cent. levy on the turnover of BSC to pay for training and to oblige the BSC and other nationalised industries to recruit labour they do not require after all the agonies it went through to get that industry into a proper state? Will my right hon. Friend comment upon that and the effect it will have on jobs in the steel industry, which would be eliminated, and the fact that the bonuses of steel workers would also disappear?

Mr. Biffen

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is heartening to see the great basic industries now serving the cause of liberal economics and not of state Socialism. Clearly that is a development of great distress to the Labour party as it gets left behind in our economic and political evolutions. I shall take account of what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I should like to refer to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander). The document to which he referred, which was also compiled by the county of Humberside, has been produced today and requires urgent consideration by the House. Would it be possible to rearrange today's business in the House so that it can be debated today, bearing in mind the fact that the Opposition's defence spokesman cannot he here today? It is an important document and it should have urgent consideration and today might be a useful opportunity.

Mr. Biffen

Proper and prudent consideration will be given to the document, but I would mislead my hon. Friend if I said that there was much chance of it being debated later today.

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