HC Deb 12 March 1987 vol 112 cc465-74 3.31 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

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

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

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

  • MONDAY 16 MARCH— Second Reading of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Bill.
  • At Ten o'clock the Question will be put on all outstanding Supplementary Estimates and Votes.
  • TUESDAY 17 MARCH—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget Statement. EC documents relevant to the Budget debate will be shown in the Official Report.
  • WEDNESDAY 18 MARCH AND THURSDAY 19 MARCH?— Continuation of the Budget debate.
  • FRIDAY 20 MARCH—Private Members' motions. MONDAY 23 MARCH—Conclusion of the debate on the Budget Statement.

[Tuesday 17 March

  1. Relevant European documents
  2. (a) 10155/86—Annual Economic Report: 1986–87
  3. (b) Unnumbered—Annual Economic Report: 1986–87:
  4. Final version as Adopted
  5. Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee
  6. (a) HC 22-ii ( 1986–87), para 6
  7. (b) HC 22-x ( 1986–87), para 1]

Mr. Kinnock

Has the Leader of the House seen the report from the National Children's Home today entitled "Children in Danger"? In view of the obvious and serious need for help with housing, income support and improved health and welfare services for so many children in Britain, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the House should debate these matters as soon as possible, and will he undertake to make appropriate time available for such a debate?

Following the haste in pushing through the Local Government Bill, the Secretary of State for the Environment's latest folly, when will the House, have the opportunity to debate the rate support grant settlement?

Will the right hon. Gentleman make time for an urgent debate on the funding of scientific research and the accelerating brain drain whereby some of our best scientists in essential areas of research are taking up careers in countries where their justifiable needs for facilities and support are properly recognised?

Finally, there is to be a statement today about Sizewell B. Does the Leader of the House recall that on 12 February he agreed that there would be a debate on the subject as soon as possible after such a statement? Will that debate take place before the Easter recess?

Mr. Biffen

On the first point, I have not seen the report "Children in Danger", but I heard a radio programme about it this morning in which it was suggested that the subject could be considered in the context of income tax levels. I shall certainly bear in mind the right hon. Gentleman's point and consider what possibilities there may be for a debate, although undoubtedly many of the suggestions will fall within the debate that will be available following the Budget.

On the matter of a debate upon the rate support grant settlement, I hope that that can take place in the fairly near future and, doubtless, it will be a matter for consultation. Perhaps we could consider through the usual channels a debate upon the funding of research, although I must concede that there is not much Government time immediately available.

I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman said about consideration of any decision on Sizewell B, and I am happy to repeat the assurance I gave earlier. Perhaps the precise timing could be a matter for discussion through the usual channels.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Dorset there is continuing concern about over-development and some confusion about the relationship between the Government's proposed new planning circular and existing planning circulars? In view of the great public interest and concern about that, will my right hon. Friend please ensure that the House has a chance to debate the planning circular at about the time of the closing date for the receipt of applications by the Secretary of State?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what my hon. Friend said. I have indicated to the House that I think that it would be appropriate that there should be a debate on countryside policy, and, within that broad ambit, I shall consider sympathetically my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there will be widespread consternation and dismay among the 500,000 people who live in the city of Liverpool at the Prime Minister's announcement to the House this afternoon that she is not prepared to meet a delegation of Church leaders, business men and politicians from the city to discuss the city's grave problems? Is he further aware that there is currently some £800 million of corporate debt in the city but that contracts worth over £24 million have been entered into in the past 48 hours? The city will regard the right hon. Lady's decision as leaving its citizens to stew in their juice.

Surely the Leader of the House recognises that the situation is grave and serious and that there should be a debate next week. Will he provide time for it?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is making a number of assertions that he knows perfectly well I am not prepared to take up in the context of next week's business, because it is my task to say what arrangements can or cannot be made for our immediate and future debates. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having Liverpool as a topic for an Adjournment debate next Wednesday and perhaps we shall see how things go then.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is growing anxiety at the increasing rate of discharge from hospitals of people suffering from schizophrenia to local authorities which do not have adequate accommodation for their care? Will he accept that in Southampton that is done well and in places such as Winchester it has been planned well but that concern is at such a level that the Government should be diverting more resources to that area, particularly to the National Schizophrenia Fellowship? Will he also accept that it is a subject worthy of debate?

Mr. Biffen

I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I underline the significance of it. However, he will realise that during the coming week, when we shall have a debate upon the Budget, the whole area of public spending is available for consideration. I hope that he will have an opportunity then to raise the point that he is seeking to make briefly now.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Perhaps the Leader of the House will recall my plea last Tuesday, after the Minister's statement on the future of the artificial limb and appliance service, for a debate in Government time on that important matter at the earliest possible opportunity. Although I appreciate that the debate cannot take place next week, will the right hon. Gentleman look sympathetically at that request?

Mr. Biffen

Sympathy comes more easily from the Leader of the House than action. However, I shall look at the point that the right hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

On the matter of the answer my right hon. Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) on countryside policy, will my right hon. Friend ensure that this subject is given priority in the week after next? Is he aware that, following publication of the Government papers, it is essential that we have such a debate to discuss not only the countryside, but the role of agriculture within it?

Mr. Biffen

I totally accept my hon. Friend's point about the relationship between agriculture and a policy for the countryside. I cannot be precise about the timing of a debate, but I take note of what he has said and have sympathy with him.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

The right hon. Gentleman must bear some responsibility for the conduct of his colleagues. Can he take some action to try to prevent the honourable oicks and yobbos behind him who now chiack every leading Labour party speaker from the Front Bench? Is he not aware that that is not good enough for parliamentary conduct, and should he not remember that, if it comes to it, some of us have more powerful organs than the rest of them put together?

Mr. Biffen

Of course I take account of all of that. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I have never set myself out to be a Stalinist in my execution of duties as Leader of the House. However, I will exhort my hon. Friends to go to the Tea Room to see whether they can pick up good manners.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there has recently been much talk of self-discipline and self-restraint. Will he consider having a day's debate next week on self-discipline and self-restraint? Will he suggest that the debate might be led off by the "Tandoori Tiger", the Leader of the Opposition, and might well be summed up by the "Tea Room Teaser", the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), so that Conservative Members may learn the secrets of self-discipline and self-restraint so admirably shown by Opposition Members?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that self-discipline is helpful to us all and necessary for a modest hon. Member. I also believe that the history of Parliament is one of controlled incontinence.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Is it the Government's intention to avoid holding the debate that is normally held on the proposals by the European Commission with regard to agricultural price fixing prior to the important meetings in which the Minister is engaged?

Mr. Biffen

Those are very important subjects, and I will certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's point in mind.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable concern about the working of the legal aid scheme, which is supposed to help very poor people—

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

And lawyers.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have often reflected that we need different microphones in the Chamber.

Mr. Stokes

—in view of the fact that a defendant recently received legal aid who owned a hotel worth £100,000 and a motor car worth £28,000?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot comment on the specific point mentioned by my hon. Friend. However, I suggest that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be answering questions on Monday, he might like to put his points then.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that there are thousands of young people with a limited life expectancy because they have serious and severe muscular dystrophy and, as a consequence, are prisoners in their own homes or are confined behind garden gates like dogs or toddlers because the Government will not provide them with outdoor powered wheelchairs despite parliamentary questions, deputations to Ministers and early-day motions? May we have a debate on that subject, if not next week, as soon as possible afterwards?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, who is a fair controversialist, will recognise that it was not so very long ago that we had a debate on the disabled. However, I will certainly bear his comments in mind.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the relationship between local authorities that are controlled by the Labour party and the police, particularly in view of the disgraceful behaviour of the acting leader of the Labour party in Wolverhampton who cast doubt upon the impartiality of the Police Complaints Authority and where two Labour councillors last Saturday joined a march organised to abuse and revile the police?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises an immensely serious point, and I am sure that it is not confined to Wolverhampton. I see no early prospect of such a debate in Government time. However, I wish him well in seeking the opportunity for a debate in other ways.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Is the Leader of the House aware that this afternoon a number of Liverpool city councillors were denied admittance to the Palace of Westminster? They intended to attend the other place to hear the decision on the appeal against their banning from public office. They had also made. appointments with hon. Members. Will the right hon. Gentleman have words with the Serjeant at Arms to look into this matter? I am certain that if these people had been brokers from the City lobbying on behalf of big business they would have had no trouble getting into the Palace of Westminster.

Mr. Biffen

Of course, I shall look into the circumstances attending the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman. He will appreciate that, in so doing, I do not in any sense imply that there has been any fault by the authorities of the House.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there will be a widespread welcome for the response by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to a parliamentary question last Friday which showed that the entire Government were behind the efforts of Cable and Wireless to obtain a share of the Japanese telecommunications market? Does he agree that we should have time for a debate, given the massive Japanese investment in this country, the balance of payments, which is substantially in Japan's favour, and the unwillingness of many Japanese interests to allow British investment in their country?

Mr. Biffen

Of course I recognise the importance of that issue, but I do not believe that there is an early prospect of Government time to debate the topic. I am certain that my hon. Friend will, in his own way, use the opportunities that the procedures of the House provide.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

When may we have a debate on the right of men to retire voluntarily at 60? Is it not ludicrous that, at a time of continuing high unemployment, men are forced to stay on at work when they are desperate to retire while younger people are kept out of the jobs that those people want to leave?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is implying that there should be a debate on pension levels. That has wide financial implications. As next week is devoted to the Budget debate, the hon. and learned Gentleman will he able to make his speech then.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

I hesitate to put this question after what the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) has said, but at least I am retiring at the next election. My right hon. Friend knows perfectly well that we like to facilitate Government business and are enthusiastic about doing so. Will he tell the House when we are likely to return after the Easter recess so that we may facilitate our personal arrangements, both outside and within the House? We should like to know whether we can meet people here on Tuesday or Wednesday. It is important that we know the day.

Mr. Biffen

I shall ensure that my hon. Friend and the House generally know the day as quickly as possible.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

If the Leader of the House and the Conservative party are really concerned about local democracy, we should have a debate on it, in view of the cock-ups by the Secretary of State for the Environment and the fact that today elected councillors were disqualified by the Lords. It is time for the House to have a debate on local government democracy, taking into account the impositions placed on local authorities by the Secretary of State and by the courts which have rejected those representatives. No doubt the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is gratified by the fact that the Government have passed control of Liverpool council into the hands of the Liberal party without the electorate being involved.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not, even by inference, challenging the validity of the judgment of their Lordships. There is to be a debate next week on Liverpool. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will try to use that opportunity to make his remarks.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

In view of Mr. Justice Latey's judgment in a recent surrogacy case, will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on the Surrogacy Arrangements Act 1985, which supposedly was designed to outlaw commercial surrogacy? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people are deeply offended that Miss Lorrien Finley and others, who arrange for womb leasing to take place, are allowed to get away with it? May we at least have a statement about measures to protect the unborn child?

Mr. Biffen

If my hon. Friend implies that the case to which he refers involved commercial surrogacy, I note what he said; but that would be a highly controversial interpretation of that case. I must be realistic about this; there is no prospect of Government time being available for such a debate, although I realise that it is well within the competence of any hon. Member, by private enterprise, to raise it in the House.

Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

Will the Leader of the House recommend to the Prime Minister that she makes a statement on the number of meetings that she has had with Major Walker of KMS concerning United Kingdom Government sales of arms to the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua? Will he also make plain to the Prime Minister that it is already evident outside the House that Major Walker is the Colonel North of this Government's Irangate, and that it is time the Government came clean on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

There are tasks for me other than to be a mere intermediary between the hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister. I suggest that he makes direct representations.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In his consideration of how business in the House is conducted, will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the possibility of re-establishing in the House the Committee on Science and Technology? It is quite wrong that we should be dependent on the deliberations, however expert, of the other place on important matters like civil research and development. There is need for a body of this kind.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion, but it runs to the very heart of the departmental Select Committee structure which was established for the assistance of the House in its work. I shall bear in mind what he says, but I suspect that a debate on the matter belongs to the next Parliament rather than to this one.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his answer about the need for a statement or a debate on arms being supplied to the Contras in Nicaragua? Is he not aware that the United States Government have run into trouble because of illegal supplies to the Contras? It has been reported that decisions have been made by the British Government to help the Contras in this way. If any assistance is being given by the Government in that way, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that it is made known to the House?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will have ample and early opportunity next Wednesday when my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will be answering questions.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

In view of the Zeebrugge tragedy, will my right hon. Friend consider initiating a debate at the earliest opportunity? There is public disquiet in Yorkshire and in many other parts of the country about the public liability aspects of transport, and the Government have been pressing for an uprating of the Athens convention which limits liability to under £38,000 for death or serious injury. Even worse, in the event of death or serious injury on an aeroplane the Warsaw convention limits liability to under £14,000. Is it not right that in the very near future the House should have an opportunity to debate this?

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that topic. It would have been rather extraordinary if this afternoon had passed without some reference to it. He will know that an inquiry has already been commissioned, but I note what he says about the possibilities of a debate. While I do not wish to hold out any immediate hope, I take account of what he says.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

Bearing in mind that the new Member of Parliament for Truro will take his seat on Tuesday, will the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a full quota of ministerial statements to delay the new Member in taking his seat? Could one of those ministerial statements be on the subject of a private notice question that is to be tabled tomorrow on the dangers of passive smoking?

Mr. Biffen

In all charity I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the conclusion of his question was a mild anti-climax after all the expectation that was aroused by his earlier comment. Of course, all things are taken into account through the usual channels.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

It is the intention of the BBC to screen a series of programmes starting this weekend on the world of UB40 based on a very partial, shoddy report prepared by a pseudo-academic unit of Newcastle university. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the BBC and its obligations under the charter?

Mr. Biffen

It must be heroic optimism that prompts that question, because, even if I were disposed to have the matter debated, I could not do it in time to place the debate alongside when the programmes are to be shown.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House make arrangements for an early debate on the Government's foreign policy, particularly towards central America, so that hon. Members can raise the serious matter of the supply of arms illegally from this country to a group of terrorists trying to kill people in Nicaragua? Will he also say whether the Government are prepared to undertake an investigation into the work of a mercenary recruiting organisation here that appears to have the tacit approval of Her Majesty's Government in their attempts to destroy the democratically elected Government of the people of Nicaragua?

Mr. Biffen

I have received a number of requests that there should be a general foreign affairs debate, and I hope that that can be undertaken reasonably soon. Meanwhile, however, all the hon. Gentleman's deep feelings will have to be sublimated into Question Time on Wednesday.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 634, with a supporting amendment?

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

It has been signed by 108 Members. It refers to the fact that all the public services of this country are entitled to count war service in the computation of their pensions, except where that public service was overseas. Is it not a disgrace that this injustice should have been perpetuated for so long? Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the matter so that that injustice can be removed as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

I must confess that I do not see the likelihood of an early debate in Government time on this topic, but it touches intimately on the financing of public sector pensions. Therefore, it would be appropriate for my hon. Friend to make a speech in the debate on the Budget.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has the Leader of the House made any progress in trying to tempt the Attorney-General to come to the House to make a statement on the subject of equality before the law, especially with reference to the fact that the Lord Chancellor said in the other place last week that the case involving all those connected with the swindle at Unimar and the Lloyd's insurance market, in which 1,000 people were cheated out of their money, should not be pursued because it would be a waste of time, too expensive and too exhaustive of the legal procedures?

Is not the fact that the £30 million involved in that case has now gone down the drain in stark contrast to the way in which today the Law Lords have made a decision about 47 councillors in Liverpool and Lambeth, who have been surcharged to the tune of less than £250,000? Is there not something wrong with the system of law in Britain and freedom under it when these people in the City, these crooks, these swindlers, these friends of the Tory party— [Interruption.] Yes, and they have given money to the Tory party. There is something wrong in Britain when these people can get away with it, but councillors who are building homes and doing their best to provide services for the people in their communities can be kicked out of office by people who represent the establishment that has allowed these crooks to get away.

Mr. Biffen

It is to be deprecated when hon. Members attack a decision made by the Law Lords merely because it happens to be politically inconvenient. The hon. Gentleman has elaborated his case. It so happens that, on Monday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be answering questions.

Mr. Skinner

I know.

Mr. Biffen

If the hon. Gentleman knows, I wonder why he asked me the question. He will have the chance to address his questions to the quarter to which they should be directed.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the most important Secondary Heads Association report on the serious decline in competitive games and physical education in schools. May we have an early debate on this matter, which is important from the point of view of both the nation and our children?

Mr. Biffen

There is widespread recognition that games and team spirit imply qualities needed in this House and outside.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

In view of the Prime Minister's comment that those who are democratically elected must learn to take responsibility for their actions, will the Leader of the House draw the attention of the right hon. Lady to page 9 of today's copy of the Newcastle Journal, which carries a photograph of hundreds of my constituents queuing for free EEC food, some of whom described butter as a luxury? Is that not a damning indictment of the Tory party's policies? Will he ask the right hon. Lady to come to the Dispatch Box, or, better still, the ballot box, to take responsibility for her actions?

Mr. Biffen

I do not for one moment accept the highly coloured views that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, but I shall convey his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I shall do that more willingly as they are connected with the Newcastle Journal.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend say when he expects to make time available to debate the reports of the Public Accounts Committee, one of which is on the operation of the legal aid scheme?

Mr. Biffen

There are well-established conventions regarding reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the debating of them. I shall try to follow those as faithfully as I can, and in so doing I hope to satisfy my hon. Friend.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Is the Leader of the House concerned about the allegations that DHSS liable relative officers are asking most intimate questions of 16-year-old pregnant girls? Is he aware that the questions are alleged to include, "When did you first have sex? When was your baby conceived? What is your precise relationship with the father of your baby?" Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Social Services issues an urgent instruction to all DHSS staff that such questions are not permissible and should not be put?

Mr. Biffen

I was not aware of the situation that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, but I shall convey his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) in asking for an urgent debate on parliamentary behaviour? It would give the Labour party an interesting opportunity of explaining whether its new doctrine of self-discipline would apply to macho little Welshmen outside Pakistani chippies in Ealing.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says, and he clearly demonstrates that such a debate would be colourful, but essentially I have nothing further to add to the reply that I have already given.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

In view of the extraordinary outburst in Monday night's defence debate from the official alliance spokesman, who said that he was not responsible for Liberal policies, and the intervention in that debate by the leader of the SDP, who said that alliance policies were quite distinct from Liberal policies, may we have an urgent defence debate so that the House may establish once and for all whether the official 1986 Liberal publication, "These are Liberal policies" should be renamed, for election purposes, "These are not Liberal policies"?

Mr. Biffen

That is an interesting line of approach, but my hon. Friend must realise that I am circumscribed for debating time, and therefore he will have to use some ingenuity with the Order Paper as it stands. I should have thought that the varied financial implications of the alternative defence policies of the alliance would make that an appropriate topic for the Budget debate.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Bearing in mind the remarks that the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Employment made this morning on the black economy, and the resentment of those who milk the system that is felt by millions of honest taxpayers, may we expect an early debate on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

I have the great advantage of not having heard the remarks of my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, but I will take a swing. I should have thought that next week's Budget debate, the levels of direct taxation and the implications for the black economy all hold together magnificently.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will my right hon. Friend associate my name with the first request this afternoon by the Leader of the Opposition for a debate on the plight of children? Such a debate would give me an opportunity to tell people of the jeers, smears and smirks that I have had to suffer from the Opposition, and also for my colleagues and I to tell people that we remain undaunted in our efforts to protect children.

Mr. Biffen

I am so glad that the Leader of the Opposition has provided solace for someone. I associate my hon. Friend's name with his in a request for a debate.

Mr. Faulds

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take it after the statement.