HC Deb 07 May 1987 vol 115 cc859-68 3.32 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 11 MAY—Private Members' motions.

Debate on nuclear power and the Government's decision on the CEGB's application to construct the Sizewell B power station, on a Government motion.

Motion on the Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order.

Motion on the Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order.

TUESDAY 12 MAY—Second Reading of the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill.

Motions on the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Miscellaneous Changes) (No. 2) and (No. 3) Orders.

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

WEDNESDAY 13 MAY—Consideration of Lords amendents to the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Lord Chancellor's salary order.

THURSDAY 14 MAY—Remaining stages of the Local Government Bill.

FRIDAY 15 MAY—Debate on small firms on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

MONDAY 18 MAY—Opposition Day (13th Allotted Day). Subject for debate to be announced.

The House will wish to know, Mr. Speaker, that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Spring Adjournment on Friday 22 May until Tuesday 2 June.

Mr. Kinnock

I can see that some of the business for next week is making even the right hon. Gentleman's hair stand on end.

The first matter that I should like to raise with him relates to next Wednesday's business—consideration of Lords amendments to the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Bill. This legislation, which would introduce a poll tax in Scotland, is widely opposed even by, as the Leader of the House knows, members of his own party. In view of that and the fact that the Government want to levy the poll tax on even the poorest in the community and would like to extend it, if they had the chance, to the rest of Britain, does not the Leader of the House think that it is wrong to guillotine debate on this legislation in the way that is proposed?

I asked the right hon. Gentleman on 9 April for a debate on the important issue of launch aid for the A330 and A340 airbus. Will he press the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make a statement about the need to give appropriate aid to enable British Aerospace to participate in this project? Even a pre-election statement of commitment would be preferable to further slothful delay by the Government.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the House shortly gets an opportunity to debate today's report from the Commission for Racial Equality which records the fact that black graduates experience much greater difficulty in obtaining work for which they are qualified than do white graduates? Since this very disturbing factor clearly depresses motivation as well as neglecting qualified talent, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that it would be a worthy subject for discussion in Government time?

Finally, could the Leader of the House ensure that the House is given some time to debate the statement in a written answer given by the Secretary of State for Education and Science earlier this week relating to small schools in rural areas? Since in that statement the Secretary of State gave absolutely no undertaking that schools with fewer than three teachers would not be closed and absolutely no assurance of any extra funding that might become necessary if such schools were kept open on educational grounds, I am sure that the Secretary of State would want to correct any impression that he was being helpful to small rural schools and the communities which depend on them since that obviously would not be true. Could the Leader of the House, who I know has an interest in small rural schools, see that the Secretary of State gets that redemptive opportunity?

Mr. Biffen

Taking the points of the right hon. Gentleman in the order in which they were presented, both he and I might be fairly disposed to abstinence in our rhetoric instead of using the analogy of hair standing on end.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I note what he says about the possible use of the timetable facilities for the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Bill. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the main timetable motion provided for a supplementary motion to deal with Lords amendments, and I can see no reason why this cannot be introduced.

As to the question of launch aid, the Government's discussions with British Aerospace have reached an advanced stage and my right hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement to the House soon.

I note the suggestion that we might have a debate on employment opportunities for black graduates in the context of the recent report of the Commission for Racial Equality. I think that might be pursued through the usual channels.

Finally, I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the excellent statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science on schools in rural areas. He was generous enough to concede that I have a lively and constituency interest in this matter. I am perfectly satisfied with it and I invite the right hon. Gentleman to follow my example.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Next Wednesday we shall debate almost exclusively Scottish business. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Scottish Conservative party conference is also beginning on that day, and the arrangement of business will make life extremely difficult for some of us who would like to be there?

Mr. Biffen

I have always thought that, if Parliament were to be sitting during the Conservative party conference, it would be a wonderful excuse to be here and not there. However, we all have our appetites and inhibitions. I take account of what my hon. Friend says, and I will look at the matter.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The Leader of the House has intimated that he sees no reason why the guillotine or the timetable procedure should not be used for Lords amendments on the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Bill. Given that there have been very few constuctive amendments in the other place and that this Session has considerable time to run, I do not find that his reason is particularly convincing and wish to hear him amplify it.

Given the cascade of Government announcements of recent weeks—perhaps with an eye to the electorate—and given the fact that we will not be here from the week beginning 25 May, can the Leader of the House anticipate any Government statements that he might have been thinking of bringing forward during that week and give the House an opportunity to discuss them before then?

Mr. Biffen

On the second point, the hon. Gentleman will have to accept the good news as it comes.

As to the first point, of course there will be a debate, possibly preparatory to the supplementary motion. The sound arguments will he made then.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Has my right hon. Friend noted that a candidate for the SDP at the last election, who was once a Member of the House, has recently spoken on a Government party platform, asking people to vote Conservative in the coming election? Will my right hon. Friend arrange to issue blanket information to Opposition Members, asking them all to come into our little ring so as to make it bigger?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure how that arises on next week's business, except that it will provide an opportunity for initial repentance on the part of Social Democratic Members if they start voting with the Government next week instead of with the Opposition.

Mr. Walter Harrison (Wakefield)

May I make a special appeal to the Leader of the House? I refer him to early-day motion 860 on the future of the West Yorkshire county hall in Wakefield.

[That this House, recognising that the purpose-built County Hall, Wood Street, Wakefield has been in existence since 1898, was built and paid for and maintained by the ratepayers of the West Riding of Yorkshire and the ratepayers of the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, and that it contains very valuable and unique furnishings, a marvellously panelled council chamber and all the requirements for local government and other public bodies, calls on Her Majesty's Government to instruct the West Yorkshire Residuary Body to suspend the consideration of tenders for the said County Hall and to negotiate a sale of the same to the Wakefield Metropolitan District Council and to the West Yorkshire Police Authority for their joint use.]

I have raised this issue on many occasions. I refer the Leader of the House to page 1397 of the Order Paper. There we have 152 hon. Members supporting the motion in my name. I have only one opponent; there is only one amendment. I cannot identify the constituency of my opponent because he is so unknown to me; it says that he is Mr. Gary Waller. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"] Mr. Gary Waller. Have hon. Members heard of him?

Does not the Leader of the House think that I should be given an opportunity next week, or possibly on the Opposition day on 18 May—here I appeal to my hon. Friends—to discuss the future of West Yorkshire county hall which is to be privatised? I appeal to the Leader of the House to give me the opportunity for a debate next week or on 18 May, the Opposition day.

Mr. Biffen

Knowing the formidable characteristics of the right hon. Gentleman as I do, I am lost in admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) that he alone can thwart the ambitions of the right hon. Gentleman. Of course I will look into the matter. I understand that it is essentially a matter for the residual body, which is a rather demeaning concept, but none the less I will consider how it might be debated.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

I welcome the suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition that we should debate at an early opportunity village schools in rural areas. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has shown by his question that he does not understand how they are financed, perhaps because his party has little to do with or cares little for people in rural areas. May I point out to my right hon. Friend that it would be good to debate the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Education and Science about his attitude to village schools in rural areas because of the important part they play in the community and the importance they have for the education of children in those villages?

Mr. Biffen

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I only wish that with a song in my heart I could guarantee a debate on this topic in Government time, but I must have a prudent sense of responsibility on how I mortgage that time for the weeks ahead.

Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

May I refer the Leader of the House to the business for next Thursday, the Local Government Bill? On 5 February the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, in the course of a fairly lengthy statement, announced that as from midnight that day it would be illegal for local authorities, among other things, to guarantee private finance for a host of housing initiatives worth, effectively, about £500 million. That was because there was going to be this Bill, which would take retrospective powers back to 5 February to make it a legal requirement to ask permission of the Ministry to proceed with such guarantees, among other things. Should the Bill fall, in the eventuality about which we are all speculating, would it be possible for the Minister, who will be before the House on Thursday, to indicate — this is an important point — that local authorities would not be acting illegally were they to give such financial guarantees for private finance to provide housing to the extent of about £500 million throughout the country in critical areas of shortage? Would the Leader of the House undertake to get the Minister to make it perfectly clear that, should the Bill fall because of the possibility of a general election, they could go ahead and give that financial guarantee so that we could get that private capital into the housing that is needed in many parts of the country?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman very fairly conceded that he was making an important but none the less hypothetical point. However, I will most certainly see that it is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend so that he may take account of it.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The House is probably at its best when there is ground common to both sides. I therefore support the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) in making a further request for a debate on rural schools. I say this because the small Church of England school in the village of Wincle, in the hill country to the west of my constituency, has just been the subject of an inspector's report which praises it for the role which it plays and for the quality and scope of education which it provides. So that in every sense bigger is not necessarily best. As many rural schools are under threat and could well be closed by unsympathetic local education authorities, may we have a debate?

I also support the Leader of the Opposition in his call for a debate on the aerospace industry, with particular reference to launch aid for the A330 and A340 airbus. This concerns the future of our vital aerospace industry and we must match the Germans and the French in seeking to ensure its survival. I believe that the House and constituencies such as mine which have a vested interest in the future of aerospace — and I refer to British Aerospace, Woodford—want my right hon. Friend to try to find time for a debate on this critical and important issue.

Mr. Biffen

I always enjoy these Thursday tours of the Macclesfield constituency. I feel that I know it intimately and could never get lost in it. I am fascinated by my hon. Friend's commitment to consensus politics, and I am sure that we shall hear more of that in the next Parliament.

As for a debate on village schools, I assure my hon. Friend that I entirely accept the force of his arguments. It cannot be arranged for next week, but I am sure that debate will take place both indoors and out of doors, as it were.

With regard to the airbus, I am sure that if my hon. Friend reflects further on what I said to the Leader of the Opposition he will draw some encouragement from that.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

I wonder whether the Leader of the House will join me in expressing pleasure that, following a small number of fairly moderate speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) and myself, the sponsor of the Obscene Publications Bill drew stumps and surrendered last night. Will he comment on the attempt that was made to ram this Bill through by bringing in a sittings motion which would have had us meeting all night, if hon. Members had had the guts for it, and all day in order to have the Bill brought forward for its Report stage with only 12 hours in between? Will he give his views on that and, above all, rejoice with us that such a depressing, reactionary, ill-formed measure has been dropped and, we hope, will not appear again?

Mr. Biffen

It is quite out of character for the hon. Gentleman not to have done his homework. If he had, he would have discovered that I voted for the Second Reading of the Bill. As to the subsequent arrangements for the passage of the Bill, that is a matter for the private sector. I represent the public sector. Therefore, I cannot sensibly and honourably comment upon what happened.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)

May we have a statement next week from the Attorney-General, and possibly from the Secretary of State or the Solicitor-General for Scotland, on the electoral law relating to direct mailing to targeted constituencies? During Home Office questions earlier I was not clear whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in answer to the supplementary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox), covered the situation in Scotland. The Secretary of State certainly did not refer to the Scottish National party and any legal advice it may have received. I make no allegations about the Scottish National party, but this is an important matter on which the House should be clear.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend referred to exchanges that took place earlier during questions to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. In truth, I cannot add anything to those exchanges, but I will most certainly see that his question to me is referred to the Law Officers.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Leader of the House take into account the fact that the Prime Minister's statement, which she might wish to amplify next week, has given great pain to the family and friends, such as Anthony Cavendish, of the late Sir Maurice Oldfield? I see Conservative Members nodding their heads in support. Could not people such as George Young have their questions answered about this because great pain, and possibly misunderstanding, has been created? Will the right hon. Gentleman convey to the Prime Minister the fact that I did not receive something from the press that I should not have. I read it in the press. Some of us are surprised that a statement about the possible misuse of information gained by MI5 is a matter of little consequence, adding nothing to the statement. Would she think about that?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to be given an opportunity to explain why Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, two BBC journalists, interviewed Harold Wilson on the question of dirty tricks by MI5, and why the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, along with the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), and the late Airey Neave interrogated the journalists? Could some statement be made by the Chancellor?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. On his first point, I will convey his request to No. 10. As to his second point, I will inquire of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about the matter that has been raised, and doubtless he will be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

Looking to the future, I give notice to my right hon. Friend that, unless I hear sooner, in the forthcoming debate on the Loyal Address I shall be raising with great force the future of the village schools of Easton Royal and East Grafton in my constituency, about whose future I have been trying to extract decisions from the Department of Education and Science ever since the beginning of December.

Mr. Biffen

All these exchanges show that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is blessed with the twin characteristics of sound political judgment and progressive educational instincts. I will ensure that the point is passed to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Fulham)

Is the Leader of the House aware that once again the future of Fulham football club has been thrown into doubt and jeopardy as a result of the irresponsible actions of Marler Estates, a company which has on a number of occasions reneged on undertakings and agreements? On this occasion a further failure to honour an agreement is causing the difficulty.

Will the right hon. Gentleman urge the Minister with responsibility for sport to come to the House next week and make a statement on the steps that the Government will take to safeguard football clubs against the actions of predatory property speculators? Will he also speak to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who as yet has not responded to a question that I raised some time ago about the possibility of there having been improper insider dealing in the shares of Marler Estates earlier this year?

Mr. Biffen

There must be scope for a private Member's Bill to convert the Fulham football club technically into a village school. That, it seems to me, is the most immediate helpful prospect of its preservation. Having once lived under its shadow, I understand that it is a matter of great seriousness in London. I will refer the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised to my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Trade and Industry respectively.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that my admiration for his judgment has been nudged a little by the reply he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) when he suggested that it was preferable to be anywhere in this kingdom, for whatever reason, even a party conference, than at Perth? Since that is the place from which the Government were launched, succeeded and relaunched, and will no doubt be relaunched again, will he use his influence with the Welsh section of the Labour party to persuade it to use its thirteenth allotted day to initiate a debate on the north-south divide in order to remind the House of the immeasurable benefits of living north of the border, thanks to the Government?

Mr. Biffen

I am always anxious to make the most ample common cause with my hon. and learned Friend, so let me say that I have the utmost devotion to Perth, particularly when it is unblemished by over-zealous political activity. My hon. and learned Friend's point is one of great seriousness, and I am sure that through the usual channels we will be able to accommodate his point.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is the Leader of the House aware of two major financial question marks over British financing of the EEC? First, there is the court case relating to the extension of VAT to house building and construction and, secondly, there is the Delors package, which has been presented and is in the Vote Office—Com. 87/101—which takes apart the whole of the current EEC financing structure and dismantles the much trumpeted Fontainebleau agreement obtained by the Government. As it is almost certainly to be referred for debate by the Select Committee on European Legislation, will he assure the House that when the package is debated in the Council of Ministers on 25 and 26 May next, if a debate has not for some reason taken place in the House by then, Her Majesty's Ministers will give no commitment whatsoever on the grounds of the resolution of the House of which he is aware?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a point that is substantial in its economic implication and constitutional consequences. He knows perfectly well that I can give no guarantee about the behaviour of Ministers at the council of Ministers. However, I shall certainly see that the matter is referred to my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend bring forward the traditional time for announcing rate capping for councils from July to next week, bearing in mind the extreme difficulties of people in Ealing, Waltham Forest and other areas? Will he bear in mind that I have had packed meetings throughout my constituency of hundreds of people objecting to the Ealing rate rise of 65 per cent. for domestic ratepayers and 57 per cent. for industrialists? A total of 3,500 people came on a march to Ealing town hall on the wettest day of the year when the Grand National was being shown on television, as well as the Calcutta cup. There is strong feeling and people need reassurance that wicked councils such as Ealing and others will be stopped in their tracks as soon as possible. Will he bear in mind the fact that pensioners and many others have been to my surgery and met me in the street and are deeply upset to the point of tears in facing rate bills that they know they cannot pay?

Mr. Biffen

I do not doubt for one moment the very strong feeling that has been generated by the rates issue in many parts of the country, particularly in Labour authorities which have had high spending policies. I note the request for the rate-capping announcement to be advanced somewhat dramatically to next week. My heart is with the proposition, but holding a responsibility for the management of Government business, I must say that I cannot easily see how it can he accommodated. However, I shall be in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Is the Leader of the House aware that in my area the Conservative party is posing quite disingenuously as the champion of the ratepayers, yet the Government have stolen £40 million in rate support grant cuts and penalties since the Prime Minister came to office? If the Conservative party is really the champion of the ratepayer, will the right hon. Gentleman find time to give back that £40 million?

Mr. Biffen

The search for an equitable distribution of the rate support grant is one of the eternal and fascinating aspects of our national politics, and I have no doubt that it will continue.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if he agreed to the call of the Leader of the Opposition and. of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) for a debate next week about the future of small village schools, I could point out that the Government have been fairly consistent in their policy? For example, seven or eight weeks ago they saved such a school at Mugginton in my constituency, which was under threat of closure from a Labour county council.

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, which reinforces the powerful case for an early debate on the educational and social significance of village schools in the shires, and the signal duty that has been undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science in that regard. Although I cannot immediately offer such a debate, we shall certainly have one, either here or in another place.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is the Leader of the House aware of reports circulating in American newspapers today to the effect that pressure has been put by the British Prime Minister on the United States President in the event of the zero—zero option being finally agreed to define Europe as mainland Europe? Britain would therefore be excluded, and all the B52s and cruise missiles would thus be located in this country. Would the right hon. Gentleman comment on the story that is circulating in the United States? More important, will he guarantee that if an announcement is made today or tomorrow, we shall have an emergency debate on the matter in Government time?

Mr. Biffen

I have always feared that the hon. Gentleman was, at heart, a trendy internationalist. I share the prejudices of his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) in that I do not regard this country as part of mainland Europe, and I shall go to the grave thinking that it is not part of mainland Europe. As to the hon. Gentleman's other points, I certainly have no responsibility for the speculations of American newspapers, and I therefore cannot help him.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House take another look at the business for next Wednesday and change it a little? First, will he give the Scottish people a reprieve by not having the debate on the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Bill so that the poll tax is not imposed on them? Secondly, will he ask the Lord Chancellor if he can get along on £78,000 a year for just a little longer? Instead would the right hon. Gentleman allow the House a full debate on the parliamentary control of the security services and the Government's action to prevent Peter Wright's book from being published in Australia so that the public can see exactly who controls the security services and what threat they may have been to previous Governments? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this a matter of great importance and that it is in the public interest that there be such a debate?

Mr. Biffen

I would not want to be the first, or last, person to suggest that the business for next week is fixed irrevocably and cannot be altered. However, it would be altered only after the most profound consideration and deep argument and with the utmost conviction. Therefore, I am disposed to stand firmly by the business announced for Wednesday and to disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

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