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Prime Minister (Engagements)

Volume 976: debated on Tuesday 18 December 1979

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Q5.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I gave earlier today to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert).

In view of the Prime Minister's remarks in America about freedom and democracy, will the Government try to introduce more open democracy into this place, instead of refusing to answer parliamentary questionson the sale of arms, for example? Are we not entitled to know what clearance certificates have been issued to British arms dealers to supply arms to Chile, where the extreme Right-wing military Government are one of the biggest enemies to freedom and democracy today?

I can only suggest that the hon. Gentleman tables that question and then we can see how he gets on with an answer.

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman wait for another three minutes, until the end of Prime Minister's Questions Time?

In view of the renewed and nasty outbreak of letter bombs, will my right hon. Friend, as he is substituting for the Prime Minister today, take an opportunity to condemn this practice of using the mail to kill people? Will he also recognise the courage of those who have to risk their lives to defuse such bombs?

Everyone in this country will utterly condemn the cowardly way in which people seek to cause loss of life through the use of letter bombs. I should add that although I believe that many will applaud the success of the police operation that was announced earlier this week, which was important, there is no room for complacency. I hope that everyone will take to heart the need for every care between now and the Christmas period.

Will the home Secretary find time today to look at the position in Liverpool where, last night, there was a devastating fire that resulted in the total demolition of the whole of the shopping precinct? Will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement on whether that was caused by a bomb explosion and also give assurances that aid will be given to the traders whose livelihoods have been ruined as a result?

It is always wise not to say too much until inquiries are completed. However, I understand that there is no evidence at present to suggest that terrorist activities were responsible. The hon. Gentleman's other remark goes rather wide, but I shall certainly consider what he said.

6.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 18 December.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave earlier today to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert).

Will my right hon. Friend draw the attention of the Prime Minister to the recent newspaper reports indicating Mr. Frank Chapple's grave concern about the state of the Labour Party and his proposed resignation from it if it continues to move to the Left? Will my right hon. Friend recognise that there is an increasing realism among trade union leaders such as Mr. Chapple?

My right hon. Friend and I certainly recognise that increased realism is spreading through many sections of the population. On the other question, it is certainly not for my right hon. Friend or for me to comment on the state of the Labour Party.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to come to the House and make a statement on the increasing danger arising from the receipt of letter bombs? Is he aware that a leading constituent of mine, who has not been involved in politics, Sir William Mather of Whirley Hall, received one of these devices this morning? Fortunately he discovered it because of some wires poking out from the letter and the police and bomb disposal team successfully defused it. Will my right hon. Friend give advice to the House and nation on how to deal with this dreadful terrorist activity?

I had hoped that that was exactly what I had already done. I recommend the utmost vigilance by everyone in handling of the mail that he or she receives. There is no further advice that I can give the general public.

Later

On a point of order Mr. Speaker. This arises from a reply that I received earlier from the Home Secretary. Last week I went to the Table Office to table a question to the Lord Privy Seal asking him how many clearance certificates he had issued for the supply of arms—

Order. It is a long-established custom that if a question is turned down by the Table Office it is not read out from the Floor of the House.

Then I simply ask the question which I asked the Home Secretary earlier, relating to the number of clearance certificates which had been given to arms dealers who export arms to Chile, and the names of those dealers. I was referred by the Table Office to a reply which was given earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) whereby questions on arms sales were specifically excluded from the questions allowed to be tabled. I tried again this morning to table a question relating to the sale of arms to the Republic of Honduras, and again I was refused.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, following the reply that I received from the Home Secretary, who refused to give me any information. In view of recent speculation about collaboration with arms dealers, how can we get the information we want about those who are dealing in arms? The Home Secretary implied that if I tabled the question, I would get an answer. Can I have an assurance from the Home Secretary on that matter?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If I have made a mistake, I take full responsibility. But when the hon. Member reads Hansard tomorrow morning I think that he will find that what I have said was that if he sought to put down a question he would then have to see how he got on. In the circumstances that seems to be a very proper way to proceed, seeing that I do not control the Table Office in any way. Obviously if an hon. Member wishes to put down a detailed question, that is the right procedure.

There is nothing that I can usefully add to that point of order, because if a question is disallowed it is disallowed. Sometimes at the request of an hon. Member a question is referred directly to me. I do not think that in this case the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) made that request. As the House knows, there are some answers that mean that further questions cannot be asked.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If I write to you with the details of this matter, will it be investigated from your point of view in relation to the accountability of the Executive to hon. Members of this House?

Of course I shall look into anything that the hon. Member brings to my notice. However, I do not want to raise false hopes that he will get an encouraging reply.