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Business Of The House

Volume 19: debated on Sunday 4 April 1982

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3.31 pm

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

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Francis Pym)

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

MONDAY 8 MARCH—Consideration of a timetable motion on the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill.

Third Reading of the Canada Bill.

TUESDAY 9 MARCH—My right hon. and learned Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will open his Budget Statement.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH and THURSDAY 11 MARCH— Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 12 MARCH—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY 15 MARCH—Conclusion of the debate on the Budget Statement.

For the Budget debate: relevant reports of the European Legislation Committee:— Fourth report, Session 1981–82 H.C. 21-iv, para. 2 Tenth report, Session 1981–82 H.C. 21-x, para. 1.

May I put two matters to the right hon. Gentleman? One of them arises from the answers given a moment ago by the Prime Minister on the cricket tour—[Interruption.] Some of us are deeply concerned to ensure that the Commonwealth games go ahead. Some of us have also taken account of the fact that the Foreign Secretary has made an important statement on this matter. Even if Conservative Members do not care, we think that it would be a tragedy if the Commonwealth games were to be injured or impaired. The danger is that England will be excluded from those games if the tour goes ahead. Therefore, I ask the right hon. Gentleman once again to ask the Prime Minister to come to the House at the beginning of next week and to make a fresh statement on the whole matter in the hope that we may rescue something from the situation. That is the duty of the Prime Minister, made all the more necessary by the answers that she has given throughout this week.

The right hon. Gentleman has proposed a guillotine motion on the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill on Monday. This matter still deserves considerable debate in the House. Debates have been held up because the articles of association have not been produced and presented. May we have a Government statement on the subject? I do not know whether it is right to ask that the Secretary of State for Energy should make the statement, since he commands very little confidence in any quarter of the House. Since he apparently was the number one adviser to the Government on the Amnesty—I mean Amersham International scandal—[Laughter.] I know that these are laughing matters to Conservative Members. They do not give a damn what happens to the Commonwealth games. They do not give a damn what happens to Amersham International. They do not give a damn what happens to the reputation of the House. The right hon. Gentleman should hold up any proposal for imposing a guillotine until many more facts have been given to the House and to the Committee. It would be much better if the Government got a new Minister to present the Bill to the House.

The right hon. Gentleman has made some rather subjective judgments about how hon. Members feel about certain matters. However, I am sure about one thing—the right hon. Gentleman is right about the Commonwealth games. I am sure that the whole House wishes those games to go ahead as planned.

I cannot find time for a debate on the tour in South Africa. This afternoon my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that she had answered a question on the subject yesterday. I have nothing more to add to what she said.

It is neither possible nor right for a statement to be made about the timetable motion before the debate on Monday. Obviously, all the issues surrounding the timetable motion can be discussed then. The Government feel that it is necessary, appropriate and timely to proceed with the timetable motion so that the Bill can reach the statute book in an orderly fashion.

In view of the Opposition's obvious new interest in sport in South Africa, might it not be timely for my right hon. Friend to advocate a debate on the subject, particularly covering the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), who has been absent for most of the week pursuing his sport behind the Iron Curtain, in Russia?

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time next week to give the House some information on any decisions that the Cabinet reached this morning on subventing in some way the operation of the smelter at Invergordon, through—if necessary—a dedicated coal-fired power station such as Kincardine in my constituency? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to explain the position because it is important for jobs in that area?

As Monday is Commonwealth Day, may I draw my right hon. and hon. Friends' attention to early-day motions 259 and 274, which stand in the names of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House?

[That this House joins with all other Commonwealth Parliaments in the observance of Commonwealth Day on 8th March, and with the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association which brings together Parliamentarians who, irrespective of race, religion or culture are united by a community of interest, respect for the rule of law, individual rights and freedoms, and by the positive ideals of parliamentary democracy.]

[That this House urges continuing support for the development of the Commonwealth; and believes that due recognition should be given to Commonwealth Day on 8th March throughout the United Kingdom.]

On behalf of the Government, will my right hon. Friend endorse our continuing support for the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association?

I am delighted to endorse these motions. I am sure that the whole House will want Commonwealth day to be truly and properly celebrated. Both sides of the House attach great importance to the Commonwealth.

Is the Leader of the House aware that some of the Government's assistance for industrial development is misdirected, because some of the areas that receive it include localities that have an unemployment rate of 5 per cent. whereas some areas that are flatly refused it—such as North Staffordshire—have three times that level of unemployment? May we have a debate next week on the Government's targetting of assistance?

It is always difficult to draw the line between those areas where assistance is appropriate and those where is is inappropriate. I cannot possibly find time next week for that debate, but I shall convey the right hon. Gentleman's views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of our two observers at the elections in El Salvador is Sir John Galsworthy, a retired Foreign Office official who, in 1945, recommended that thousands of people should be sent back to Soviet Russia, to be shot by Stalin? Given that, is he the proper man for the job? Should not the matter be debated.

I do not think that that matter comes under the heading of business for next week.

Will the right hon. Gentleman immediately reconsider the introduction of the guillotine motion on the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as the articles of association have not been made available to the Committee an enormous amount of time has been wasted? As a result, the part of the Bill dealing with the British Gas Corporation and North Sea safety will be neglected in debate. The right hon. Gentleman should reconsider the matter.

Clearly the safety aspect is extremely important. I think that that is in part IV, which is at the end of the Bill. It is important that there should be enough time available for those clauses to be debated properly. The Government considered carefully whether to introduce the timetable motion, and came to the conclusion that we should do so, so that the rest of the proceedings can be conducted in an orderly fashion.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the publicity in the press today about research assistants operating from Norman Shaw North and Norman Shaw South? Will he try to find time next week to make a statement clarifying the employment of research assistants, as many complaints are being made to Members about the presence of strange people in these buildings? Is he aware that the research assistants seem to work very strange hours, and is he concerned, as many hon. Members are, that the facilities of the House are being abused?

A number of allegations have been made. I have thought it right to institute some inquiries, which I have asked the Services Committee to undertake. There are security implications, accommodation problems and a strain on the facilities of the House. It is, therefore, an issue that requires investigation and I have set that in hand.

Will the right hon. Gentleman seriously consider the need to find time for a debate, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has suggested, or at least a statement, on the bribing of British sportsmen to play in apartheid South Africa because that would provide an opportunity for the Prime Minister to clarify her rather muddled and prejudiced mind on this matter?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made her views clear in her answer yesterday. I do not think that I can find time at the moment for such a debate.

May I offer my right hon. Friend some discreet but well-considered advice regarding a possible statement in the near future on heavier lorries? Would he accept that that statement should be deferred until June—1984?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has intimated that the House will be asked to consider that subject rather earlier. I think that we are committed to that and time is likely to be found for it this year.

Will the right hon. Gentleman draw the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Committee proceedings, which have now finished, on the Social Security and Housing Benefits Bill on Tuesday and Thursday this week? Is he aware that the pledge that the Prime Minister gave about maintaining long-term benefits in line with inflation has been under attack and threatened by ministerial statements in Committee? To avoid any doubt, will the Leader of the House ensure that when the Chancellor makes his statement and when the Secretary of State makes his statement on social security uprating the following day, there is no confusion in the minds of hon. Members or of our constituents about the proposed new retail price index announced by the Government in Committee which will cut £90 million from people on supplementary benefit this year?

I will, of course, convey those representations to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, I have no reason to suppose that the hon. Gentleman will be confused after their statements.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early and urgent debate on the future security of the Falklands Islands, in view of worrying statements by the Republic of Argentina about the territorial integrity of that British Crown colony?

As my hon. Friend knows, that issue has been running, relevant and topical for a number of years. I cannot find time for a debate on it in the near future, but perhaps my hon. Friend can find some other way of doing it.

On the disposal of North Sea assets, bearing in mind that the Leader of the House is reported to be a member of Lloyd's and therefore very much involved in business deals of one kind and another, and taking account of the fact that oil is a falling market, will the right hon. Gentleman in his capacity as a member of Lloyd's advise whether it is a good time—

Order. No Ministers answer here on professional or business activities. They answer as Ministers.

I was merely drawing the attention of the Leader of the House to a possible contradiction in the Government disposing of oil assets when many people outside and inside the House would say that, even if it is accepted that the assets should be disposed of, this is a crazy time to sell.

Until the House passes the Bill, we are not in a position to sell. We should have to judge the market at the time.

Reverting to the welcome announcement by the Leader of the House of a statement regarding the employment of research assistants and the clear need for guidelines to be laid down, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there has been a great deal of unpleasant speculation and defamatory observations about decent, hard-working American students who are here to study and to help Members of Parliament? Will he make it clear in the forthcoming statement that these people should not be made scapegoats for the thoroughly inadequate research conditions and facilities available in the House?

I should not like to anticipate what may be discovered as a result of the investigations that I have set in hand, but I am certain that the matter should be looked at, if only to satisfy ourselves that in certain respects the present arrangements are satisfactory. If in other respects they are not satisfactory, we shall then be able to do something about that.

Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the House will have the opportunity to discuss exemptions from the wearing of seat belts in cars before legislation comes into force, as, although the legislation will undoubtedly save many lives, there are reports that exemption will be far too difficult to obtain?

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I am confident that there will be an opportunity to debate the subject in the House before the final decision is taken. I will make sure, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that that is possible.

Is the Leader of the House aware that, after some seven years, part of Cyprus, a Commonwealth country, is still occupied by Turkish troops? As this country is one of the guarantor Powers and, sadly, yet again the intercommunal talks seem to be collapsing, when shall we have the opportunity to discuss this crucial matter in the House?

I think that it would be relevant on the next occasion that it is possible to have a foreign affairs debate. Clearly, it is an issue that one would like to see settled, but it had proved extremely difficult. The subject is constantly in the mind of my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

In view of the nation's serious concern about the high level of violence to teachers, pupils and buildings in some schools, as evidenced at St. Saviour's School, Toxteth, and in other places, may we have an early debate on school discipline?

There have been a number of debates this Session and last Session in which that subject was relevant. I do not foresee another occasion in the near future, although I share the anxiety of my hon. Friend and of the whole House about behaviour of this kind.

When shall we have the promised White Paper on data protection? Will the Leader of the House promise that it will cover the MI5 computer in Mount Street, W1 , which, if unsupervised by some kind of parliamentary mechanism, represents a grave threat to civil liberties as it has the capacity to store information about every citizen in the country?

I think I can say that the White Paper is coming soon. I cannot say precisely when, but it will be soon. On the specific point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said today, no Government ever make any statement or answer questions relative to the nation's security, which is quite as important as the anxieties to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. The White Paper will be forthcoming soon.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the West Midlands regional health authority and the Severn-Trent water authority are about to fluoridate the water supply of 2 million inhabitants against the wishes of most of the democratically elected local authorities? Will my right hon. Friend find an early time to discuss the powers of those unelected bodies to sweep aside the democratic views of the people in matters concerning life and death?

I am sure that is an important issue, but I am afraid I cannot find Government time for such a debate.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a Government statement or a debate is necessary about the cricketers who have gone to South Africa, in view of the Prime Minister's shameful refusal to condemn the tour? Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that we need to know the Prime Minister's real views and whether she endorses the sentiments of the fellow travellers and apologists of apartheid on the Government Benches?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although there is great admiration for the way in which the police dealt with the hijacked Tanzanian airliner, there is concern in Southend and other parts of Essex that the designation of an Essex airport as a suitable landing place for hijacked airliners puts a considerable extra financial burden on the county? Are the Government willing to make a statement next week about whether this kind of financial problem should be dealt with on a national rather than a county basis?

Although I cannot promise a statement on that, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that this incident was handled with great skill by the police force on the spot and by the chief constable of Essex, under the general direction of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern, but I do not think there is scope for a statement.

How does the Leader of the House answer those critics who say that parliamentary democracy is a sham, when a leading journal can describe the growth of massive computer facilities at a headquarters in Mayfair by a secret police service of which we are supposed to be rather critical and to want to hold to account, when the Prime Minister and he have refused—

Order. May I just ask the hon. Gentleman if it is next week's business about which he is asking? There is a statement to follow.

I am asking the Leader of the House for an urgent statement and time for a debate, but the Leader of the House has said that neither he nor the Prime Minister is prepared to comment on the MI5 computers which are being linked into other Government departments. This is a very serious matter for the freedom of the individual. They should abandon that platitudinous nonsense about not commenting on something that should be accountable to this House.

The hon. Gentleman should abandon his exaggeration. I have nothing to add to what the Prime Minister said.

Will my right hon. Friend give pleasure to both sides of the House by having an early debate on human rights, in particular, the action of the Test and County Cricket Board in threatening cricketers who are going about their lawful business in South Africa, particularly as this might be an apt matter to refer to the European Court of Human Rights?

Will the Leader of the House find time for a short debate on the continued incarceration of Rudolph Hess? Will he accept that this man who will be 88 next month has spent 41 years in prison, most of that time in solitary confinement? Does he not think it right to urge the Foreign Secretary to make greater efforts to allow this old man to die in the dignity of his home or at least in a British military hospital?

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken a deep interest in this case, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to have a debate he must find his own occasion for it; I frankly cannot. I fully accept that there is concern on both sides about the circumstances of the individual to whom he referred.

An important statement was made last night on cigarette promotion in a written answer by the Secretary of State for Social Services—at a time when there was no opportunity for questions to be put by hon. Members. In view of this sneaky and unsatisfactory statement, will the Leader of the House find an early opportunity for us to discuss the Government's policy towards the tobacco industry and the dangers of smoking?

I do not accept the criticisms of the right hon. Gentleman. A great many statements are made in this House—sometimes, I think, too many—and there have certainly been a number of debates on that issue. It seems possible that the general subject might fall within the scope of the Budget debate. I do not know, but it might. At any rate, I cannot find Government time for it and the right hon. Gentleman must find another occasion.

I propose to call those four hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the statement you made, Mr. Speaker, on Tuesday of last week, that it was high time that the House came to a decision about open questions to the Prime Minister? As you, Mr. Speaker, have made your view abundantly clear, may I ask my right hon. Friend to provide an early opportunity for the House to debate this and other important issues of procedure?

I rather doubt a debate in the House would be the best way to approach this. Athough I will consider the possibility, I should have thought a more likely way would be to have another Select Committee on Procedure look at it, not necessarily immediately but at some time in the future when we set up a general Select Committee of that kind once again. It is always difficult to establish exactly what suits the House best in relation to Prime Minister's questions, but I agree with my hon. Friend that the present arrangements are subject to criticism and that we must find the best way, when we can, of improving it.

With regard to the replies which the right hon. Gentleman has given on the subject of the inquiry he is holding into research assistants, can he confirm to the House that contained within that inquiry will be the subject of the adequacy or inadequacy of the facilities at present available to reseach assistants of hon. Members?

Yes, I think that is relevant. I do not myself take the view that the facilities of the House ought to be expanded without limit in accordance with the demand placed upon them. We have to try to strike the right balance here. It is a relevant consideration. There has been a good deal of criticism that, in some cases, a strain is being put on the existing facilities which is not really justified by the nature of the inquiries being made. It is, therefore, in my mind, although the inquiry I am making; at the moment is more specifically directed to the complaints that I have received.

Do the Government take seriously the coming special session of the United Nations on disarmament? If they do, will we be given an opportunity in good time to debate the matter so that we can also discuss the inadvisability of having a NATO meeting in Europe which coincides with the special session in New York?

All sessions on disarmament and on reductions in the level of armaments are taken extremely seriously. After all, the entire objective of all Western countries is to have a lower level of armaments. One of the disappointments, decade after decade, has been that on the other side of the lion Curtain they have not been prepared to acknowledge this objective or to stop their own remorseless build-up. Such sessions are taken extremely seriously and, notwithstanding all previous disappointments, approached with hope but also with realism. There may be an opportunity in the course of a foreign affairs debate later on, or on some other occasion, of debating these matters, though not in the immediate future.

The Leader of the House will have seen early-day motion 301 concerning human rights in Hong Kong, now supported by 125 Members of this House.

[That this House recognises the merit of the social and community work of Ms Christine Vertucci among the poor, the homeless, and low income groups in Hong Kong and her campaign for health and safety at work; deplores the decision of the Hong Kong Government to expel her from the Colony without giving a cause for its actions; condemns this arbitrary action and violation of human rights; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to reverse that decision in order to prevent democratic, human and civil rights and freedom of speech and justice in the Colony becoming a mockery and a charade.]

Will he at some time arrange a debate on Hong Kong so that we can find out to whom the Hong Kong Government are answerable—whether it is to the Jockey Club, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank or this Parliament?

Ballot And Prime Ministers Questions

I have two observations to make before I call the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make his statement.

First, I remind hon. Members that if anyone is fortunate enough to be selected in the ballot for the Adjournment debate he is not free to transfer it, at least not without some consultation with my office.

Secondly, I hope that hon. Members will desist from writing in to me asking to be called at Prime Minister's Question Time. Everyone is on an equal footing at Prime Minister's Question Time and I try to ration the number of supplementary questions as best I can by keeping a record.