HC Deb 08 April 1982 vol 21 cc1089-94 10.30 am
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for the week after next?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

The business for the first week after the Adjournment will be as follows:

MONDAY 19 APRIL—Supply (17th Allotted Day): There will be a debate on the 1st to 17th Reports from the Committee of Public Accounts in Session 1980–81, and on the 1st to 5th Reports in Session 1981–82, and the relevant Government observations, which will arise on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 20 APRIL—Consideration of a timetable motion on the Employment Bill.

A debate on satellite and cable broadcasting, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 2I APRIL—A debate on a motion to take note of the White Paper on the Government's Expenditure Plans 1982–83 to 1984–85, Cmnd. 8494.

Second Reading of the Industry Bill.

THURSDAY 22 APRIL—Progress in Committee on the Finance Bill.

FRIDAY 23 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Foot

May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment as Leader of the House? All through the period that he and I have been in this House he has shown that he has full possession of the qualifications needed for the post. Would that I could say the same of most of the others. I wish the best of good fortune to the right hon. Gentleman.

I am sure that the Leader of the House heard the exchanges that I had with the Prime Minister a few moments ago. We must keep open the possibility that the House of Commons may be recalled immediately after the Easter holiday. That may be the best course in the interests of Britain as a whole and in the interests of informing the rest of the world about what we may be doing.

It is a great error on the part of the Government to proceed in the week that we return to carry the squalid and vindictive measure known as the Employment Bill a stage further. We shall, of course, bitterly oppose their proposal that it should be pushed through under a Guillotine.

Mr. Biffen

I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his kind introductory remarks. My affection for the House has always been underpinned and inspired by those who have made this democratically elected Parliament the centre point of their politics. None has been a greater and more eloquent practitioner of that art than the Leader of the Opposition.

May I now move to the more difficult part of the right hon. Gentleman's question? I can add nothing to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about a recall of the House, but as I carry the responsibility as Leader of the House, I wish to say that if the position makes it requisite I shall ask Mr. Speaker, in accordance with Standing Orders, that the House should be recalled during the period for which we are adjourned at Easter.

As to the timetable motion on the Employment Bill, the right hon. Gentleman has much more experience of such matters than I, but, by any standards, the fact that after 22 sittings and 92 hours the Committee is still at clause 4, as yet unfinished, shows that there is some eloquence attached to the ill-directed epithets of "squalid and vindictive". The long-windedness needs some examination.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of the emergency and our reliance on the ports of the United Kingdom, both naval and commercial, a review of our ports policy should be implemented? Would not the best way to do that be to set aside a day for a debate on the future port structure of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend's point is truly important and may well be merged into the wider considerations touched upon by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). In the light of what I have said today, my answer must be that such a consideration cannot take place in the first week after the Easter Recess.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. To be fair to those who have been successful in the ballot for the Adjournment, I propose to allow questions to run until 10.45 am, which will allow half an hour for the first Adjournment debate instead of 45 minutes.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

The right hon. Gentleman will have seen that industrial action is threatened by nurses and other low-paid ancillary workers in the National Health Service. Because of the Government's scandalous behaviour in limiting their pay increases to about 4 per cent., will there be an early statement on this matter to assure the nurses that they will receive much more generous treatment than they have been offered hitherto?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the question in the terms in which it has been put to me, but I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that a planned debate on the Middle East did not take place? Is he aware that the House has not yet debated Israel's action on the Golan Heights or on the West Bank and that, for the first time for many years, British troops are stationed in the Middle East? Would it not be appropriate for the House to debate the Middle East as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, but such a debate must be put in the context of the other pressures that will inevitably be put upon the time of the House by the Falkland Islands affair.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

Does the Leader of the House accept that recent events have highlighted the need for us to review the policy of arms sales to other countries? Does he further agree that we must not sell arms to oppressive dictatorships, especially those which may use them against our own people? May we have an early debate on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

The question of arms sales is kept under constant review. Although I can appreciate the hon. Gentleman's desire to have an early debate, there cannot be one in the week after we return from the Easter Recess.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people will welcome a timetable motion on the Employment Bill, not least millions of trade unionists who are looking forward to some curbing of the apparent immunity enjoyed by trade unions? I might not agree with the word "eloquence" and nor would my right hon. Friend if he had attended some of the——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Neither do I. May we have succinct questions so that everyone has the opportunity to speak?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to say that Britain expects this legislation to pass on to the statute book and for it to be dealt with fairly but expeditiously.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Can we have an early statement when Parliament reconvenes after the Easter Recess on the multi-fibre arrangement renegotiations? As the Leader of the House knows, this is a vital matter for the textile industry. I suspect that both sides of the textile industry will be disheartened by the appointment of a Secretary for Trade in the other place who will not be accountable to this House. After all, the textile industry is the second largest employer in the country.

Mr. Biffen

I know my successor and, in my judgment, he is one of the most outstanding business men to have come into politics. The Department of Trade, the Government and the nation are lucky to have his services. Negotiations on the multi-fibre arrangement are now under consideration by the European Commission. I do not believe that it is appropriate that a debate should be held in the first week after we return from the Easter Recess.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend, who has shown himself to be a great House of Commons man, take a particular interest as Leader of the House in the Select Committees? Will he try to ensure that all the major Select Committee reports are debated within a reasonable time?

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I do not think I have had any chance to escape taking a keen interest in the work of Select Committees. Of course, I will try to maintain the standards of my predecessor in the way in which the work of those Committees is considered by the House.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

In the event that the Security Council is convened to discuss the serious issues in the South Atlantic, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Foreign Secretary makes a personal report to the House of its proceedings? Will he suggest that it is appropriate at this time that the Foreign Secretary should be there and not a civil servant?

Mr. Biffen

I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention. However, I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary needs any guidance from me on the discharge of his duties to the House.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

May I, too, extend my sincere congratulations to the Leader of the House? My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is a considerable, if entirely unavoidable, sense of frustration among the large numbers of hon. Members who were excluded from the two debates on the Falkland Islands. That applies particularly to those who represent the great ports of Portsmouth and Southampton. Will he assure us that as soon as we get back we will have an opportunity for a prolonged debate in which that sense of frustration may be expunged?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend will have noted the business for the week when we come back. However, I have a feeling that he should not be too frustrated by what I have said this morning. It will be the anxiety in all parts of the House that the Falkland Islands affair should be properly debated in the House at each appropriate stage, having regard also to the operational requirements of our forces in that area.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his conditional reply to the Leader of the Opposition regarding the recall of the House? Will not the statement made after 10.30 pm yesterday by the Secretary of State for Defence about the maritime exclusion zone have considerable repercussions, particularly in respect of the Foreign Secretary's advertised wish for maximum diplomatic activity? Does not that statement cut down the time that is available for such activity? Should not the House reconvene on Wednesday, come what may?

Mr. Biffen

No. I do not think that it would be helpful to go beyond what I judge to be my reasonable reply to the Leader of the Opposition which underlined what had been said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

As we are prepared to go to war on behalf of the 1,800 Britons in the Falkland Islands who wish to remain British, would it not be wise for any consideration of the White Paper on Northern Ireland to be deferred indefinitely? Many people look upon it as a discouragement to those loyal Britons in Northern Ireland who wish to remain British.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that my hon. Friend holds a clear and distinct view on this matter. However, I have also to observe that others feel that this is an important initiative on the part of the Government that they would not wish to see frustrated.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will call two hon. Members from both sides of the House and take five minutes off the second debate.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As Leader of the House, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he has a responsibility to the House and not just to the Government? An even stronger reason for the House to watch and be kept informed of every development in the present Falkland Islands crisis is that there is no confidence in the present Administration's ability in this matter. What type of inquiry is likely to emerge into the origins of that crisis?

Mr. Biffen

First, I would fail in my duty if I gave the impression that the Leader of the House is merely another Government spokesman.

Secondly, I cannot at this stage say what will be the form of the inquiry to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has referred.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

In view of the danger which the Falkland Islanders will face over the recess, will the Government consider, through he Minister's good offices, the possibility of a clear formal statement that, irrespective of the British Nationality Act and other legislation, the people of the Falkland Islands will be given British nationality, the right to settle, to work, to receive free medical treatment and to have a subsidised university education—all the privileges to which British subjects are entitled?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that while discussing next week's business I should be drawn to answer so fundamental a question.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Someone should answer it.

Mr. Biffen

However, I will certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of those of my right hon. Friends who are responsible.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that, with the loss of Lord Carrington from the Foreign Office and with the eyes of the world turned towards the Falkland Islands, there is a feeling in the Middle East that the Israeli occupying authorities in the West Bank—indeed, the Israeli Government—may wish to annex the West Bank? If that were to happen during this difficult time, will the Leader of the House give us an undertaking that an early debate will be arranged to discuss that important matter? It may be a new flashpoint in world affairs.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely fair point, echoing observations from one of my hon. Friends. I take the point, and will try to secure as early a debate as possible.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

Pursuant to that question, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not allow the immediacy of the Falkland Islands crisis, important though it is, to draw time and attention away from the successful prosecution of Government policy in matters closer to home, perhaps rather less dramatic but equally important.

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend. He will have ample opportunity—if he is successful in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker—in making that point in several of the debates which will arise in the first week after Easter.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

May I add my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman? As he is the third Leader of the House that I have shadowed on the trot, I hope for a little stability at this particular moment.

May I ask one question that arises out of last night's debate? He may recall that I asked a rather important question of the Secretary of State for Defence about military spares going to the Argentine on O1 priority only 10 days ago. Will he arrange for a statement to be made on that matter immediately upon our return?

Mr. Biffen

I will draw my right hon. Friend's attention to that point. I am sure that he will wish to deal with it in an appropriate fashion.