HC Deb 26 October 1992 vol 212 cc784-8

4.6 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My point of order concerns a report by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which recommends that emphysema and bronchitis be deemed industrial diseases. Such action would greatly assist the many thousands of miners and former miners who suffer from those wretched illnesses, and who have been seeking compensation from British Coal for many years.

Although the document emanates from the Department of Social Security, it has been reported that a senior civil servant in the Department of Trade and Industry has advised the President of the Board of Trade to delay publishing it, on the grounds that many of the sufferers will die in the interim and that the cost to the Exchequer will therefore be reduced.

Have you, Madam Speaker, received any requests for a statement on this urgent matter? What steps should my right hon. and hon. Friends take when faced with the DTI's blanket refusal to answer questions about leaks, even when the rights of dying men are at stake?

Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. If anything motivated me to become a Member of Parliament, it was this. The anomaly introduced by academic and medical argument over whether certain people were suffering from emphysema or bronchitis, from pneumoconiosis or silicosis, has affected every member of the mining fraternity. It is heartrending to ask a miner's widow and dependants to allow a post mortem on the deceased after he has breathed his last, but all of us have had that experience. It may sound melodramatic, but if anything made me bitter, it was that.

Sufferers from those diseases have given their lives to an industry from which we all benefit. It is only right for the anomaly to be dealt with, and I appeal to Ministers to enact such a change immediately. It should not be delayed; if anything, it should be speeded up, and I hope that any payments that became due some time ago will be backdated.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I will, of course, take points of order that relate to the matter that we are discussing, but they must be directed to me, rather than attempting to debate the subject of the report.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Only last week, the President of the Board of Trade apologised to the House for his discourtesy. If it is other than discourtesy, is it not at least very disturbing that we should be left to weigh the value of stray memoranda from the Department of Trade and Industry in order to discover the Government's policy on an issue that is so deeply important to people suffering from distressing chronic illnesses, many of whom have to struggle to breathe?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Over many years, Madam Speaker—especially during the past 10 years—you will have heard my hon. Friends make requests and present Bills on this very subject. You will have heard the Government say that they now intend to look at this matter.

Therefore, it becomes an issue for you, in the sense that, now that you are in the Chair, it seems to me that they are saying that they are treating the House of Commons with contempt, and the proposals that have been put before it. Because of that, it is important that you insist that a statement be made by the Government, either today or tomorrow, on the matter so that we can question the Minister about this stinking, rotten, lousy memorandum.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I intend to respond now to those points of order.

The House has strong feelings on the matter. To deal with it purely factually, I have had no information from the Government that they are seeking to make a statement. However, Ministers are here, and they will have heard the strong feelings expressed about the matter. I could make light of it and say that there are more leaks around these days than there are in my kitchen colander, but it is a very serious matter, and I hope that the Ministers sitting on the Treasury Bench have heard what hon. Members have said.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We are given to understand that next week we are to debate the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to enact the so-called Maastricht treaty. Unlike certain members of the Cabinet, you and I have had the benefit, if that is the word, of reading the Maastricht treaty and therefore understand some of its implications.

Title 1 of the Maastricht treaty talks about maintaining something called the "acquis communautaire". It goes on to talk about building on the "acquis communautaire"—a decentralisation measure, I understand: I do not know what it means. I thought that I would try to enlighten myself by finding the biggest English dictionary that I could set hand on. I could not find it there. I understand that "acquis communautaire" comes from the French language.

I want to ask you two questions. If it is in order, is there any precedent whatever for United Kingdom legislation being framed in the French language, and, if so, can you tell us when? Secondly, if it is in order, could it be translated into plain English before next week, so that the whole country can understand it? You yourself will wish to understand what it means because, in the increasingly unlikely event of the treaty passing through the House, you will be required to rule on the meaning of "acquis communautaire". From time to time you will have to say to us, "Lads, it's not on; it's part of the acquis communautaire, so we can't debate it." So you, as well as we, will wish to know in plain English what it means. Can you help us, please?

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Last Thursday, the Leader of the House said during business questions, at column 570, that the debate on 4 November was expected to be on a substantive motion. There has been a lot of interest in and controversy about what will happen on 4 November. We now understand that there is a possibility that the debate will not be on a substantive motion but on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, when it is unlikely that a Division would be called.

If that is the position—I stress, if that is the position—can you again confirm that it is your wish that such information should be given, first and foremost, to the House before the media obtain it? I hope that we shall not find that the media state that that is firmly the position without the House having been notified before next Thursday's business questions. I put it to you that the House is being treated with contempt. If the Government are going to do another U-turn, which is quite likely, the House should be the first to know of it.

Madam Speaker

I always take the very firm view that, before going to any of the outside authorities, this House should be the first to know when statements are to be made. The hon. Gentleman and the House understand that. I cannot discuss with the hon. Gentleman what will happen next week—I do not have my crystal ball. If I were to do so, it would be hypothetical. However, I have taken—

Mr. Winnick


Madam Speaker

Order; I have quite a lot to say.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but he will understand that from my point of view it is hypothetical and that I do not know what the situation will be next week.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) flatters me greatly by saying that he knows that I have read the Maastricht treaty. I am only a quarter of the way through it at the moment; it is not the easiest bedside reading. The House has committed the European Communities (Amendment) Bill to a Committee of the whole House, and it would be quite wrong of me to comment on the proceedings in Committee or to give rulings involving a legal opinion on matters of Community law. I cannot take it any further than that at this stage.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On 15 July, the President of the Board of Trade failed to explain in his announcement of the privatisation of Parcel Force that it would lose its VAT-exempt status as part of the Post Office. As a result, charges in the newly privatised Parcel Force will rise by 17.5 per cent. Surely the right hon. Gentleman should apologise to the House and come clean about the impact of his policies.

Madam Speaker

Again, I have not had any request from a Minister to make a further statement on the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he could find methods on the Order Paper by which he could make his views known.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

Further to the application under Standing Order No. 20 made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans), Madam Speaker. My hon. Friend questioned the veracity of the statement made by the Secretary of State for Wales in winding up the coal debate. The Secretary of State does not seem to have realised that, as he was making his statement, lorries were entering the pit yard of Taff Merthyr colliery ready to tip hard core down the shafts. Can you call him back to the Chamber to tell us why he did not know that, or, if he did, why he made that statement?

Madam Speaker

I am afraid that the House and hon. Members credit me with more authority than I have. I listened carefully to the application under Standing Order No. 20, and gave a ruling in accordance with our proceedings. I can take it no further at this stage.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker, which I hope is of some constitutional significance. The governor of Hong Kong made statements on television this morning that affect the position of hon. Members. He made statements in defence of the Prime Minister and of the Maastricht treaty that went way beyond his responsibilities as governor of Hong Kong. It should be made clear that he must desist from making such statements and must limit himself to his area of responsibility.

Madam Speaker

I am sure that the House will understand that my responsibilities do not stretch as far as Hong Kong or television. The hon. Gentleman will know that he can draw this matter to the attention of the Government in an early-day motion. I must leave it to him to do so. He is a wily Member and knows how to set about these things.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A motion appears on page 1632 of today's Order Paper relating to a European Community document that was debated by the members of European Community Standing Committee B last Wednesday.

Has the Leader of the House given you any indication that he intends to seek to increase the number of European Community Standing Committees? The original intention was to create five, but we have only two. A heck of a lot of work is being put on the shoulders of members of the two Committees. There should be more Committees to debate the ever-increasing load of documents, legislation and regulations—I will not call it bumf—that is emanating from Brussels. We need a bit of help on this.

Madam Speaker

I appreciate the amount of work that members of the two Committees do. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a member of one of the Committees, although he is not raising the matter purely because of the burden that falls on him. The Leader of the House has not raised the matter with me. I suggest that the hon. Member puts a question to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On 21 October, reported in Hansard at columns 459–460, the President of the Board of Trade, in response to remarks by Opposition Members about Colombian coal, made critical comments about local authorities purchasing such coal, and then said that he required an open inquiry into the matter.

On 25 October, it was reported in the Observer that the Prime Minister had been in Colombia and had discussed negotiations about the import of Colombian coal. The import of such coal has meant the closure of the pit in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans).

It has also been said that, at the Prime Minister's request, the Home Secretary visited Colombia, not only to discuss the issue of drug trafficking, but to take the opportunity to negotiate on behalf of the Government the early access of Colombian coal to the United Kingdom market. The Prime Minister has intervened personally to—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is aware that points of order are for me to deal with. He is now getting into an argument. What is the point of order with which I as Speaker can deal?

Mr. McCartney

The point of order is that, on 21 October, the House was seriously misled in debate by the President of the Board of Trade. As a result of his ability to misrepresent the position, I ask you to ask him to make an early statement about the Government's negotiations about Colombian coal. The question of those negotiations is important in discovering whether the Government knew months ago of the intention to close a number of pits in the British coalfield.

Madam Speaker

I have had no information at all that any Minister wishes to come to the House to make a further statement on those matters. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to find other methods of raising the matter.