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Commons Chamber

Volume 57: debated on Thursday 29 March 1984

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House Of Commons

Thursday 29 March 1984

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Derwent Vally Railway Bill Lords

Read a Second time and committed.

Ginns And Gutteridge, Leicester (Crematorium) Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 5 April at Seven o'clock.

Nottinghamshire County Council Bill Lords (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Thursday 5 April.

Tees And Hartlepool Port Authority Bill (By Order)

Dartmoor Commons Bill By Order

Orders for Second reading read.

To be read a Second time upon Thursday 5 April.

Oral Answers To Questions

Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Fishermen (Training)

1.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement concerning the present and future provision of training for fishermen in Great Britain.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. John MacGregor)

I am confident that the Sea Fish Industry Training Council, which has been set up by the Sea Fish Industry Authority, will continue to build on the achievements of its predecessor, the Sea Fisheries Training Council.

Given that training was the sole function of the Sea Fisheries Training Council, whereas it forms only a part of the overall functions of the Sea Fish Industry Authority, can the Minister give the House the assurance that there will be no dilution in the training of fishermen following this transfer of responsibilities?

Yes, I can give that assurance. It has been widely recognised that, for reasons of economy and effectiveness, a single body is better. As the hon. Member will know, the support grants for group training associations, which we are funding, will allow programmes proposed by GTAs to be fully funded. The allocation for survival and fire-fighting courses will be almost doubled, and the SFIA is continuing its own training programme and maintenance and support grants for fishermen on voluntary training. I believe that that will continue.

As the Minister's answer includes Scotland, will be confirm that the same arrangements and enthusiasm will apply to Northern Ireland which, of course, is within the jurisdiction of the Sea Fish Industry Authority?

I have already had discussions with the chairman of the Sea Fish Industry Authority about training. That is another reason why I believe that it has taken its responsibilities extremely seriously. I have not raised the specific question of Northern Ireland with him, but I shall now do so.

As there will be little point in training unless there is an industry for which people can train, and as this is the only question on fishing that will be reached today, what proposals does the Minister have for relaxing the full rigours of a cod quota which means that a Grimsby vessel which catches more than 135 kit of cod in one week must stay in dock until the following week to unload the extra quota of cod? What proposals are there for negotiating an extra supply of cod with Norway?

I admire the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity. I have been corresponding with him on this matter. On the first point, my officials are discussing this very matter with the industry in Edinburgh today and will be reporting back to me, as we wish to take the industry's views into account. I hope to be able to announce proposals shortly. On the second point, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have commitments from the Commission to do all that it can in its discussions with Norway, and those discussions will be held before the next Council of Fisheries Ministers on 24 May.

Given the Minister's commitment to training and the fact that he has given some idea of what funding might be available, precisely what sums of money are available for training and how do they square up to requests from the industry for such money?

The training budget for 1984–85 will be £486,000. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is our general policy to seek to have training costs met by the industry, and in future that will be done through the levy. The figure for this year includes £84,500 from the Manpower Services Commission for the GTAs. I was particularly anxious to achieve that from the MSC to assist in this matter.

Why has the fishing industry to meet the costs of training, when training costs for the farming industry are met by the Ministry?

That is the general policy on all these matters, and it has been agreed that on fishing we should move in line with that general policy. I have been corresponding with the right hon. Gentleman on this matter.

Pigmeat

2.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what effect the current year's price settlement in respect of pigmeat will have on home producers.

It is proposed that the basic price will be cut by 1 per cent., but this price is a relatively theoretical concept in the pigmeat sector since it has no direct effect on market support arrangements. However, the cuts proposed in the institutional prices for cereals should produce concrete benefits in terms of lower pig production costs, while the proposed aid for encouraging the use of concentrated skimmed milk in pig feed should also be helpful. I expect the Commission to agree to continue to take account of regional difficulties in its management of the market. The impact of the proposed MCA changes will depend on future currency movements.

If the final settlement does not appear to afford better prospects for the United Kingdom pig industry, are there any measures that my right hon. Friend can take independently to protect the survival, let alone the prosperity, of many United Kingdom pig farmers?

I am conscious of the difficulties that the pig industry has been through, but I invite my hon. Friend to look at the current all pigs price index, which is currently at over 105p per kilo. That is the highest that it has been. There has been a considerable rise since mid-January, and the figure is now about 18 per cent. above what it was a year ago.

What is the proposed percentage reduction in price for cereals, and what percentage decrease in the feed costs for the pig and livestock sectors does that amount to?

A 1 per cent. cut is proposed in the institutional prices for cereals. If that is reflected in market prices, it should cut costs for pig producers by about 22p per fattening pig.

If the Minister cannot hold on to the variable premium for beef producers, why will he not try to persuade his counterparts in Europe to introduce a variable scheme for pig producers?

I am determined to keep the variable premium for beef, but the hon. Gentleman should recall that the difference between a pig and a cow is that the pig breeds much faster and produces many more young. A modest subsidy of about lop per kilogram would cost the Community £1 billion.

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of how closely the fate of pig farmers is linked to cereal prices. As even the most efficient pig producers are now in danger of going bankrupt, will he always look at all available means to lower the price of cereals to pig producers?

My hon. Friend will know that I have consistently argued during the past nine months that the cereal livestock balance is wrong, and I have argued for a reduction in cereal prices. I shall be glad to look at whatever ways there are in which I can help the pig industry, although my hon. Friend will accept that the situation is now a good deal better than it was a year ago.

Does the Minister recollect that the National Pig Breeders Association has argued that the pig industry could prosper if there were a £20 per tonne reduction in the price of cereals? Is he aware that the association is worried that intervention is becoming the market of first resort, instead of last resort? Why does not the Minister do something about that, instead of worrying about the subsidy to pigs?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman joins me in pleading for a reduction in cereal prices. As a signal to the hard-pressed livestock industry, in an effort to give it some confidence, I have said that it would be helpful if the Community were to agree to a price reduction over a number of years.

Farmers (Retirement)

3.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many seminars have been sponsored by his Department in the last 12 months based on leaflet 2010 issued by his Department and reprinted in 1981; in which areas they were held; and how many farmers attended each seminar.

Nine seminars have been sponsored by the Department in the last 12 months based on booklet 2010 on "Succession, Retirement and Inheritance" which is concerned with the social and economic aspects of retirement and handing over a farm business, with a total of 1,041 farmers attending.

With permission I will publish in the Official Report details of the venues and the number of farmers attending each seminar.

Will my hon. Friend cause the leaflet to be updated and reprinted, in view of the Budget resolutions? In any future seminars after a reprinted edition is available, will there be a facility for reputable pensions organisations to carry out follow-up lectures, because as presently organised the seminars appear to operate in a vacuum?

We intend to revise the booklet in due course to take into account not only my hon. Friend's point but also, I hope, the changes that will take place in the Agricultural Holdings Bill. I am obviously keen to encourage representatives from the private sector to attend the seminars, and I understand that they do. We go out of our way to stress the importance of getting independent professional advice, and I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend said about that.

Following is the information:

Venue

Attendance by Farmers

1. Newark, Nottinghamshire110
2. Colchester, Essex65
3. Kidlington, Oxfordshire84
4. Sparsholt, Hampshire151
5. Wye College, Kent236
6. Newquay, Cornwall115
7. Newcastle Emlyn, Dyfed80
8. Preston, Lancashire80
9. Brecon, Powys120
TOTAL ATTENDANCE1,041

Dairy Industry

4.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will consider a measure of transitional arrangements for dairy farmers in the proposed reduction in milk production.

The agreement on restraining milk production provides for a transitional year in 1984–85, when the guaranteed quantity free of levy will be set at 98·2 million tonnes. In 1985–86 the quantity will fall to 97·2 million tonnes.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that any industry faced with a 10 per cent. cut in production and income merits special hardship compensation over a transitional period? Does he not accept that many farmers who have been encouraged in recent years to increase production are now feeling very concerned, particularly in view of the encouragement that came from CAP reviews and special schemes?

The cut that is implicit in the transitional year which is about to begin is slightly more than 6 per cent., not 10 per cent. My hon. Friend should remember that one of the reasons for having to take these difficult steps, which I fully recognise as such, is that the Community has no more money at the moment.

Will the Minister confirm that, as usual, the United Kingdom will monitor the cuts in milk production that are forthcoming from the new EC proposals and monitor the super levy? Does he agree that other member countries in the Community are not so eager to do precisely that? Will he ensure that the Community sets up proper arrangements to monitor and administer the super levy in other countries as well as Britain?

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. All sales of milk are covered by the quota system, with no exemptions, for small producers, regions or off-farm sales, which could have benefited some countries at the expense of others, such as Britain. In discussions on the detailed application of the system we shall insist that the implementing measures are not discriminatory and can be properly enforced throughout the Community. I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the new weapon of disallowance, which the Commission is becoming more and more accustomed to use.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable pleasure in the industry that the foreign side has had its direct sales drawn into the agreement and therefore the output fully reflects the proper output? As the system starts from next Monday and there is considerable uncertainty in the industry, can he give us some clue as to when the quota arrangements might be resolved?

We are having urgent talks with the industry here about the implementation of these measures. Urgent talks are taking place in Brussels in the Special Committee on Agriculture. When I return to Brussels tomorrow, I expect that then and on Saturday we shall discuss again the measures to implement this scheme.

What special consideration has the Minister given to the predicament of milk producers in Northern Ireland, and has he made any proposals about that in the discussions?

The hon. Gentleman will recall that in the debate a week ago today I spoke of the need for equal consideration to be given to the claims of Northern Ireland, and I spoke of this when I was in Brussels at the Council of Agriculture Ministers on Monday.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that dairy farmers have had three years of warning of the great increase in the mountain of butter and dairy produce, and therefore that the call by the NFU president for a three-year phasing-in should be considered in relation to the warnings that farmers have had?

The standard quantity to which we are working in the Community is 97·2 million tonnes, which is the 1981 figure plus 1 per cent. It is on that basis that the whole thing has been put. It was, of course, at that time that warnings were issued and the guarantee threshold was instituted to try to create a weapon to deal with overproduction.

As the Irish Government have made it clear that they will not accept these proposals, will the Minister tell the House whether it is his policy still to try to secure agreement on the basis of these proposals, or whether he will use this opportunity to achieve changes which will lead to a less severe effect on our own dairy industry?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have made it clear that the Irish demand for its expansion of milk production to be taken into account is unacceptable, and so it is.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the lot of the average dairy farmer is a hard and difficult one, and that although cutbacks may be inevitable they deserve the sympathy and support of the whole House in what looks to be an even harder and more difficult time in the future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. He will recall that in the debate a week ago I expressed my understanding for the difficult decisions that have to be taken. The dairy industry has a difficult period ahead of it. We shall issue guidance to it and give what help we can as soon as possible after the arrangements are finalised.

Will the Minister recognise that throughout the House there is deep and growing concern about the damage that will be done to the dairy industry by these arrangements? Will he therefore inform the House, because we accept that the Community budget may be pressed, that it is within his power to double the suckler cow premium from £12·37 to £24·75, and that, in terms of maintaining beef from the dairy herd and the incomes of many of the marginal land dairy producers, this immense and immediate help is available for him to implement?

To double the suckler cow subsidy will not help beef from the dairy herd. That is a different herd from the one that is being talked about in the arrangements. I shall certainly consider the level of the suckler cow subsidy when the time comes to do it.

Dairy Industry

5.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the present state of the dairy industry; and if he will make a statement.

As the annual review of agriculture for 1984 makes clear, dairy farm incomes are forecast to be significantly lower in 1983–84 than 1982–83, partly as a result of bad weather last spring and summer. This was one reason why I decided to increase the maximum wholesale price of liquid milk from 1 March to the benefit of producers, although the associated rise in the maximum retail price will not take place until 3 June.

Does the Minister not agree that he should now accede to the request of the dairy producers and of members of the National Farmers Union that they should be given three years to adjust their farming methods? Does he not agree that unless he accedes to that request many small dairy farmers in the south west of England, in Wales and in many other parts of Britain will be made bankrupt?

I think that it would not have been realistic to achieve a three-year transitional period. The NFU came to us and asked for a transitional period, and we negotiated one year. I think that it is necessary for the dairy industry to grapple with the difficulties of over-supply and the massive over-production and surpluses in the community. I hope that the one-year transitional period will help in easing the difficult decisions that have to be taken straight away.

Can my right hon. Friend explain to the House why we, who are not self-sufficient in milk products, are taking two and a half times the cut in dairy produce as the French, who produce bigger surpluses in Europe? Could not my right hon. Friend fight a little harder on behalf of British interests?

Before saying that Britain is not self-sufficient in dairy produce, my hon. Friend should recall that if we take into account our political decision, which I believe he supports, to allow New Zealand butter to come to Britain—I am glad to see him nod—in 1982, since when things have moved on considerably, we have reached 131 per cent. self-sufficiency in solids not fats, and 100 per cent. self-sufficiency in butter fat, taking New Zealand imports into account.

The right hon. Gentleman appears to be satisfied with his achievements to date. Is he aware that the dairy farmers in his county of Cumbria — and especially in his constituency—are far from satisfied with the state of the dairy industry? I understand that even the chairman of the Cumbria NFU has a little disagreement with the Minister. What will he do about it?

I hope that our disagreements will remain little ones. I do not think that anyone could be happy about the prospects facing the dairy industry. Difficult decisions must be taken. We cannot continue to produce milk in over-supply. We are currently producing about 17 million or 18 million tonnes of milk more than the Community consumes.

In formulating his decisions about the application of quotas on individual farms, will my right hon. Friend take account, first, of the need to ensure that quotas are saleable and, secondly, of the position facing farmers in the middle of an expansion plan who may already have invested money in new building and who now find themselves in considerable difficulty?

Saleable quotas give rise to considerable difficulties. For that reason, the Commission has suggested that the quota should go with the land. While there is room for flexibility, that is probably a rather good principle.

With regard to the milk producers in the middle of expansion programmes — whether half funded by the Community or by their own money—we shall keep a national reserve to deal with hard cases.

Can the Minister confirm that in the final analysis his Department will be responsible for the allocation of quotas to farmers? Would it be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to skew those quotas in favour of the smaller producers and those areas that feed cows on grass?

We are currently holding discussions with the farmers unions and the milk boards about who allocates the quotas and administers the scheme. I am not yet in a position to make a statement about that.

Toxic Tributyl Compounds

6.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the effect on shellfish of the use on vessels of anti-fouling paint containing toxic tributyl compounds.

The Ministry's Burnham-on-Crouch laboratory has carried out tests which have indicated that the presence of tributyl tin in water can cause shell thickening and reduced growth in Pacific oysters and, in addition, can adversely affect the growth and survival of very young oysters of both the native and Pacific species. It has also been shown to affect adversely the survival of larvae of marine organisms other than oysters; however, further work is being carried out on this aspect.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the grave concern that is felt by shell fishermen in Teignbridge about the threat that this killer paint represents to their livelihood? Bearing in mind that the Ministry's experts have established a link between anti-fouling paints containing toxic TBT and the destruction of shellfish stocks, is this not an occasion when just for once we should follow the French example and ban the use of TBT completely?

Yes, I am aware of the concern and I have advised all known United Kingdom paint manufacturers of our test results. One of the problems is that no appropriate powers are available to my Department for enforcement or action along the lines that he suggests. I am therefore exploring with my colleagues in other Departments — notably the Department of the Environment—what steps might be taken.

Does this not form part of a wider marine pollution problem, and does the Minister accept that marine pollution in various forms constitutes a major problem for the British fishing industry?

I am keen to examine problems wherever they occur with a view to ascertaining what can be done to help.

Pesticides

7.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will introduce legislation to control the use of pesticides.

The pesticides safety precautions scheme has been operated by successive Governments since 1957, and has served the nation well. Its effectiveness is kept under continuous review, and the Government would not hestitate to give the scheme statutory support if circumstances rendered this necessary.

Is it not true that there are no statutory controls on the safety of pesticides and that there is only a voluntary secret code between manufacturers and the Government? In the light of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution that there should be a new statutory regime and that the veil of secrecy should be raised, will the Government act rapidly and introduce the necessary legislation?

Data submitted to the Government for the safety screening of a wide range of products are the legal property of the company concerned and cannot be disclosed to third parties without the company's prior consent. The Government have already published a large amount of data on pesticide use and will do more in the light of the recommendations from the Royal Commission to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Sheep Scab

8.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received since 1 March about the dipping requirements for 1984 to control sheep scab.

I have not received representations since 1 March about the arrangements proposed to control sheep scab this year. However, extensive consultations have been undertaken with the organisations concerned and the dipping arrangements take full account of the views expressed. An announcement of the details will be made shortly.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving that reply, which will be welcomed by the many farmers in Cumbria. Will she take into account the problems of dairy farmers who have sheep on the open fell and require an extension of the dipping period into mid-September so that they can deal with the undisturbed portion of the flock — perhaps as much as 5 per cent. — which may go undetected?

I appreciate the difficulties to which my hon. Friend refers. It is not possible to apply periods that suit both husbandry and animal health requirements. Bearing in mind the number of outbreaks, we must apply the most effective animal health measures.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the considerable amount of cross-border traffic during the store lamb sales in August and September? Will she have consultations with the Scottish Office to ensure that the regulations are clear and concise and that everyone understands them?

Animals (Transit)

9.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement concerning the transit of animals to and from animal and livestock sales.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

The welfare of animals in transit is protected by existing legislation, which is enforced by the local authorities.

Is my hon. Friend aware that some horse dealers are said to tour the country over five or six days with large horse boxes and pick up horses and ponies at one sale after another? It is said that some of the horses at the front end of the large boxes do not get fed or watered during this period while they are in transit to EC-approved slaughter houses, of which there are only five in Britain, and that others die because they fall to the ground and are trampled to death? Will my hon. Friend take steps to ensure that the relevant legislation is enforced, because it seems that it is not working at present?

I reassure my hon. Friend that there is comprehensive legislation making it an offence to cause an animal unnecessary suffering in any way. Where anyone suspects an offence is being committed it is important to inform the local authority at once and in detail, after which it is for the local authority to take appropriate action.

Farm Prices

10.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will make a statement on the latest position regarding the European Community farm price negotiations.

15.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he now expects the discussion on the annual price review to be concluded.

I refer my hon. Friends to the statement that I made yesterday in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord), in which I said that the Council will resume its consideration of these matters tomorrow and Saturday.

As the strain of any proposed settlement is likely to be taken by the livestock producers, can we be certain that my right hon. Friend will not give way one inch — will he? — over the retention of the beef premium?

I have made it clear to the Council of Ministers that it is essential to continue the beef premium.

Apart from solving the Irish problem on milk, how close are we to the fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy that the Foreign Secretary laid down as a precondition for any increase in our own resources contribution?

We have some reservations on the present proposals about the Irish milk quota, the settlement on the MCAs, the beef premium system and sheepmeat.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House why the irresponsibility and inaction of successive Governments in this country and within the European Community should be borne by the livestock and dairy sector of the United Kingdom? Will he tell us why, as members of the Community, we should be expected to take the full amount of butter from New Zealand as part of our quota?

My hon. Friend is wrong to suggest that the burden of those arrangements will fall upon the United Kingdom. Farmers throughout the Community are dissatisfied. The other day I was interested to read the following by the leader of one of the main French farmers' unions:

"The French Government has yielded too much and accepted too many restrictions while France's European partners have not accepted the same sacrifices."

How will the cost of the proposed agricultural package compare with that for the current year? If it is likely to be higher, how does the right hon. Gentleman square it with the Prime Minister's assurance to the House two weeks ago that agricultural expenditure would be reduced as a precondition of budgetary reform and an increase in own resources?

Whether or not the cost of the common agricultural policy in 1984 exceeds the budget remains to be seen because market circumstances could yet change. If necessary, cost-saving measures would have to be adopted later in the year, as they were last year.

Will my right hon. Friend point out to the many people affected that the milk settlement that he is negotiating is likely to allow more flexibility for small farmers in the south west and other areas than for large milk producers? Does he accept that the noise being made by the NFU and many small farmers is on the whole for the benefit of the very large producers rather than their own, and that what the Minister has achieved is much better than most people realise?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. It is true that the settlement on milk is much more satisfactory to British farmers than would have been the case if other Governments had had their way. Although there will be difficulties for milk producers throughout the Community, I do not believe that there will be discrimination against British producers.

Given the benefits for many sheepmeat producers since the inception of the sheepmeat regime, will the Minister give an undertaking that he will not agree to any measures that would lessen the effect of that regime for upland hill sheep producers?

As I said a few moments ago, we have expressed a reserve with regard to the present sheepmeat proposals, which are unsatisfactory, and we shall be seeking changes in the next two days.

As we produce only 80 per cent. of our dairy product requirements and France produces twice as much as it needs, is the Minister aware that there has been criticism from our dairy farmers that the French have secured a much better deal? Is that true? Is the French Minister popular with his farmers and can he make the deal stick?

As I said a few moments ago, the leader of the main body of French farmers has been making noises to his Minister similar to those made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). The House may be interested to know that the Dutch Minister came to the Council the other day and told us that he was being called Santa Claus because he was always giving things away.

As the Minister agrees with us, for example, that the variable beef premium is of great benefit to consumers as well as to the industry, and as he has stated that he is keeping a reserve on it and the sheepmeat issue, does he realise that it will help his negotiating position in seeking to retain those advantages if he states specifically at the Dispatch Box today that he will use the veto to prevent any changes from taking place that would diminish the advantages of those regimes?

I have always resisted exposing my negotiating posture in advance on these extremely difficult negotiations.

Nevertheless, I hear what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) says and clearly the use of the Luxembourg compromise is something that one always has available in certain circumstances.

Agriculture Industry (Livestock And Grain)

11.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is satisfied that sufficient measures have been introduced designed to correct the imbalance between the livestock and grain sectors of United Kingdom agriculture; and if he will make a statement.

A better balance in the common agricultural policy between the livestock and cereals sectors is much assisted by restraint in cereal prices. There has been some progress in this direction in recent years and the 1 per cent. reduction in support prices for wheat and barley provisionally agreed for 1984–85 is a further and significant step.

In view of the constraints likely to be imposed on milk producers, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential not only to retain the variable beef premium and the sheepmeat regime support but to secure a reduction in real terms in grain prices? Is that still the primary objective of my right hon. Friend?

As my hon. Friend will have heard, my right hon. Friend the Minister is fighting very hard on the variable beef premium and has made his position very clear. I know from being constantly with him in Brussels how hard he is fighting.

On cereal prices, the proposals this year for intervention prices represent a real reduction and I assure my hon. Friend that it is the British Government who are pressing that case to secure a better balance in Europe.

North Sea Prawn Stocks

12.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment he has made of the state of the North sea prawn stocks.

The North sea prawn stock is assessed from time to time by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea to whose work experts from the United Kingdom contribute. ICES recommended in 1980 that the stock would benefit from an increase in the minimum landing size and minimum mesh size. These measures were introducea in the Community regulations with effect from 1 December 1980.

Is the Minister aware that at a recent large meeting fishermen and merchants in the north-east expressed great concern about the landing of small prawns and tailed prawns and about the prospects of beam trawling for prawns, and said that they are seeking help from the Department to get those possibilities assessed much more carefully? Will the Minister make a thorough assessment of the state of the stock?

I received a full report of the meeting attended by the hon. Gentleman and one of my hon. Friends. We have at the moment no evidence of a strong conservation case for an increase in the minimum landing size, but we are looking into the industry's request. Nor do we have evidence that beam trawling is taking place on a significant scale or damaging stocks. That is another matter that I am further looking into.

Whisky

13.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received about the minimum alcoholic strength of Scotch whisky; and what action he intends to take.

We have received many representations, both written and oral, on the minimum strength proposals contained in the draft whisky regulations. We are considering all of these most carefully before coming to a final decision.

Is the Minister aware of the widespread concern in the whisky trade and the Scottish Trades Union Congress about the thousands of jobs at risk in the whisky industry? Is she aware that they want regulations for a 40 per cent. volume minimum alcoholic strength for whisky to prevent profiteers selling watered-down whisky in Britain and, worse, in the Common Market, where as much as half of the bottle may be water? Is she further aware that if she takes the initiative of laying down regulations for a 40 per cent. minimum strength, even I may swallow my political principles and swallow a dram to toast her?

I am tempted to say nothing further on that point. The case made by those in favour of a 40 per cent. minimum strength must be considered against the views of those representing the interests of bottlers of under-strength Scotch whisky.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 29 March.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I shall be having further meetings later today. This evening I am holding a reception for the British winter olympic team.

Did my right hon. Friend see on television this morning the chairman of the Labour party give his support to mass pickets? Does she agree that those miners who wish to work and produce coal at a price that people can afford, have the support and respect of the vast majority of the nation?

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that miners who wish to go to their place of work to produce coal—that industry has great prospects—must be enabled to go about their law-abiding duties peaceably. The overwhelming majority of people in Britain, except, perhaps, those in the Labour party, are behind the police and the excellent work that they are doing.

When one considers the action taken by London Transport yesterday, the marches and demonstrations in London today, and what is happening in Liverpool and among working people generally, is it not clear that the Government's draconian policies are themselves pregnant with violence, and that the election of a Tory Government, such as this one, is bound to produce unrest?

Nonsense. Despite the action taken by London Transport yesterday, most commuters were determined to get to work, and to work normally.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the reports of the speech made last week by the Leader of the Opposition to the National Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses Ltd., in which he recognised the importance of small business? [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] Does she agree that his apparent conversion would sound less opportunist and more convincing the Opposition were prepared to recognise and welcome the many measures in the Budget designed further to assist small business?

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to note not only those measures that are designed to assist small businesses but those which are designed to assist all business, especially the removal of the national insurance surcharge, which Labour put on when in office.

When the Prime Minister reflects on the point that has been reached between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Economic Community, will she bear in mind the fact that when grave issues and fundamental differences come up for resolution, nothing is commoner than for them to be disguised as if they were a quarrel about details and small sums of money, such as the little local difficulty over £50 million?

With regard to the money aspect of the right hon. Gentleman's question, it is about a great deal more than that because it is about securing an entire and permanent system. It is also about getting a fundamentally equitable system of sharing the burden of financing the Common Market. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is about even more than that, because the fact is that many of us had far greater ideals for the European Community than have yet been achieved. We shall continue to work for them but we believe that the financial and agricultural matters must be settled first.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 29 March.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a sad day for the rule of law in our democracy when the Leader of the Opposition and his party's national executive committee blame the police for the violence on the picket lines and utterly fail to condemn the excesses of unlawful secondary pickets?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. It is an upside-down world in which Opposition Members blame the police for enabling law-abiding miners to go to work while endorsing the action of those who are attempting to intimidate them to prevent them from going to work.

Is the Prime Minister aware that some people would find it easier to understand her ideals for the EC if, every now and then, they got the feeling that she was prepared to listen a little more to some of the views of other European countries? Will she now quantify the narrow divide that still exists between what she feels are the vital interests of Britain and what it is reasonable to ask from our European partners?

By asking that question the right hon. Gentleman shows that he does not understand the type of negotiation that we were having on the Community budget. It was about two things. First, it was about having a continuous system that will endure for a long time. That system has been extremely difficult to negotiate. Secondly, it was about the starting figure for that system which will determine what happens in the future. Great differences remain to be resolved. They are not quantifiable, as the right hon. Gentleman would know if he understood the type of negotiation that we were carrying out.

How can the Prime Minister claim to believe in democracy while proposing to take steps to deprive Londoners of the right to vote next year and stop the other metropolitan county elections? In a democracy, is it not a reasonable price to pay to allow those elections to take place next year?

No. The decision to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan county councils was a foremost part of our manifesto, which was endorsed by more than 13 million voters.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that my constituents, who live within the area of a shire county that has accepted the Government's rate support grant allocation for this year and its implications for next year's rates, would simply not understand it if the Government gave one extra penny in rate support grant to the Militant Tendency councillors of Liverpool?

I understand what my hon. Friend says but if the Liverpool councillors reduced their expenditure they would find that they would get an increase in rate support grant. I believe that most of us would welcome a reduction in that council's expenditure.

Does the Prime Minister stand for town hall, not Whitehall, and does she accept the freedom of local government as one of the twin pillars of our constitution? If she does, why is she capping, cutting and centralising local government on a scale that is utterly incompatible with any realistic notion of democracy in the locality, for the locality, by the locality?

As was indicated in some very excellent speeches — which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will read — when we debated this matter yesterday, it is the Government's duty to be in charge of the economy and public expenditure of this country and to be in charge of the overall level of taxation levied upon our citizens. It is, of course, a traditional role of Parliament to protect the citizen. There is not the slightest shadow of a doubt, as was indicated last night, that there has been oppression of ratepayers by the very large amount of rates that have been levied because of very high public expenditure. That view was endorsed by a majority of 125 at the end of the debate last evening.

Since the Prime Minister is right to say that it is the Government's responsibility to be aware of the overall level of taxation, why are her Government levying more tax than any other Government in British history? If it is the case that the Government have a responsibility for the citizen, why is she introducing and adopting powers that mean that cuts in services and inflict deprivation, disadvantage and even danger on the weakest people in our community?

With regard to the latter point, local authorities are spending well above Government target, and if they are choosing to cut on some of the weakest sections, it is up to local people to say what they should choose to spend money on. [Interruption.]

Secondly, with regard to the earlier part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, one main reason why more tax is being levied now is that incomes are up. In fact, figures produced at 2.30 pm today show that real personal disposable income in 1983 was 3 per cent. above that for the fourth quarter of 1982 and higher than at any time under Labour.

I think in fairness we really should move on. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Order. I am the defender of the Back Benches here. [Interruption.] The Front Bench always has some dispensation, but I have called the right hon. Gentleman twice and I think that three times would be one time too many, and unfair to Back Benchers.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 29 March.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing public concern in this country about the erosion of the liberties of our subjects by the—[Interruption.]—arbitrary, secretive and oppressive use of central Government power under successive Governments, and is she prepared—[Interruption.]

Is she prepared to fulfil the promise made in her 1979 manifesto to—[Interruption.]—seek to enter into constitutional talks with all parties in the House—[Interruption.] This is impossible.

In particular—[Interruption.]—is the Prime Minister prepared to enter into discussions to seek to ensure that those of our citizens whose fundamental rights have been eroded, although they are guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, do not have to seek a remedy through the court in Strasbourg but may do so—[Interruption.]—in our own British courts?

I do not accept that there has been such an erosion of rights. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman condemned the Government of which he was a member.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that yesterday's day of disruption in London by striking London Transport workers caused not only disruption to those trying to get to work but great damage to the capital's commercial and industrial life?

Those who embarked on that day of disruption are not concerned with the commercial success of the capital. However, most people were determined to see that it was business as usual.

Questions To Ministers

I shall take points of order later. Does it arise directly out of Question Time?

During Question Time this afternoon we have seen organised chanting on the Conservative side—[Interruption.] With great respect, Mr. Speaker, the protection of the Prime Minister when she has been in difficulties and the gagging of the Leader of the Opposition will bring the House into disrepute.

I am not in favour of baying on either side of the House, and I try, as fairly as possible, to ensure that Back Benchers have an opportunity to speak during Question Time. But the longer the Front Benches take and the more often they speak, the less time there is for Back Benchers.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I in no way contradict your ruling and the direction that you gave in the middle of Prime Minister's Question Time. Whenever possible I try to ensure that I do not take up an inordinate amount of time in Question Time, but the exercise of the traditional authority, or privilege, of the Leader of the Opposition to pursue a point is one of the few means available to the House of ensuring that the Prime Minister, who has enormous power, is accountable to the House on a daily basis. With that in mind, Mr. Speaker, I shall on future occasions be seeking to catch your eye more than once. I shall, naturally, respect and obey your directions but sometimes, occasionally, I hope that you will permit me to pursue a specific point with the Prime Minister so that she can be responsive—as I know she wants to be.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy, but I say again that we did not do very well at Prime Minister's Question time today. Only three questions were answered. In fairness to those hon. Members whose questions appear further down on the Order Paper, I should like to get a little further.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not right, and should there not be an appropriate direction to this effect, that the Executive is here to answer the Legislature? Is it not also a fact that the number of questions from Conservative Back Benchers about the Labour party is offensive and detracts from our right to challenge the Executive?

Order. The hon. Gentleman raised a legitimate point. The other day I stopped an hon. Member from receiving an answer when he asked the Prime Minister her view of some action on the part of the Leader of the Opposition. Hon. Members should ask the Prime Minister questions on subjects for which she has responsibility.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you notice of this point of order——

Order. This does not arise out of Prime Minister's Question Time, so I shall take the hon. Member's point of order at the end of business questions.

Business Of The House

3.35 pm

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

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

MONDAY 2 APRIL—Completion of Report Stage of the Trade Union Bill.

TUESDAY 3 APRIL—Opposition Day (12th allotted day) (first part): until about seven o'clock a debate on an Opposition motion on investment in education.

Afterwards, a debate on the current negotiations within the European Community, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 4 APRIL—Progress on the report stage of the London Regional Transport Bill.

Motions on the European Assembly Constituencies (England) and European Assembly Elections (Scotland) orders.

THURSDAY 5 APRIL—Further progress on the Report stage of the London Regional Transport Bill.

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

Motion for the Easter Adjournment.

FRIDAY 6 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 9 APRIL—Completion of remaining stages of the London Regional Transport Bill.

Consideration of any Lords Amendments to the Telecommunications Bill which may be received.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that information, but I note that the debate on the current negotiations in the European Community is to be taken on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give further consideration to that, as it is clear that an amendable motion would be more appropriate in view of the importance of the matter and the interesting diversity of opinion on this matter, which is not confined to one side of the House.

Can the Leader of the House assure us that the health and social security regulations that relate to entitlements to social security in the early weeks of unemployment will be the subject of consultation over a period of weeks, as recommended by the Social Security Advisory Committee and not rushed through the House by the Minister responsible, as appears to be his intention?

I shall look at the second point and I shall be anxious to meet the right hon. Gentleman's observations. As to the earlier point, I have sought to underline the significance of the debate on the negotiations within the European Community by suspending the rule so that it can run until midnight. I realise that the House will wish to conduct a wide debate on these negotiations, which are of major significance and are still in progress. It has often been past practice to arrange such a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. That is an appropriate form and that is what I propose.

Could my right hon. Friend prevail on our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement next week about the parallel importing of medicines? I hope that he will be aware that two days ago this matter was raised at Question Time, and considerable anxiety was expressed from both sides of the House. It would be helpful to have a statement next week.

I am conscious that anxiety has been expressed from both sides of the House about parallel importing of medicines, and I shall refer my hon. Friend's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Is it not time that we had a debate about official secrecy so that the House can give its view on the proper bounds between Government secrecy and public information, and what might be appropriate punishments for infringements of them? Would not Government time for the Second Reading of the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), the Freedom of Information Bill, be an ideal way of achieving this?

In view of the strain and stress upon the police service as a result of the transport strikes, the chaos in the coalfields and many other problems, will my right hon. Friend ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the law and order implications of what is happening? If he cannot do that, will he urge the Opposition to provide one of their Supply days to discuss the matter, bearing in mind that statements by some Opposition Members have been nothing more than a stab in the back for the police service?

If I were to undertake the second course suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) I should show a degree of provocation which is unwise as the Leader of the House of Commons. I appreciate the importance which my hon. Friend attaches to the work of the police in the current circumstances. I shall refer his remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

On Tuesday's debate on discussions in the European Community, why are the Government and the Leader of the House unwilling to test the views of the House on matters such as withholding an appropriate part of our payment to the European Community or about whether we should increase the own resources of the Community? Would that not be the ideal opportunity to obtain the views of the House on either or both of those matters?

I am absolutely certain that the views of the House will be made extremely clear during that important debate. There are many precedents for major decisions being taken upon the Adjournment formula. There will be plenty of scope for hon. Members to express their opinions.

If we cannot have that, may we have an assurance that in Tuesday's debate the Government will explain why exports of highly subsidised cheap food to the Soviet Union have increased by 600 per cent. in the last four years and are running at about 100,000 tonnes a week? May we have an assurance that the Government will give an explanation of that, and of whether they have power to do anything about it?

My hon. Friend has given us an effective trailer of the speech that he hopes to deliver next Tuesday. I shall, of course, refer his comments to the Foreign Secretary so that he can take account of them when he makes his speech.

When may we have a debate on cruise missiles? We heard last night that missile carriers are being moved about the countryside. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that is causing great concern? Is he further aware that in the Soviet Union, between January and October last year 147 nuclear alerts took place? Does he agree that the movement of missile carriers is likely to increase that number and so escalate the problems and dangers of a nuclear attack, either by intent or by accident, through computer error?

The hon. Member raises a topic of material concern. No provision has been made for a debate on that next week and I cannot hold out the prospect of an early debate in Government time, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Will the Leader of the House find time soon to debate the considerable effect that the miners' strike is having upon my constituency, where 6,800 jobs are at risk, affecting 10 pits in the Yorkshire field which supply the Appleby Frodingham steel works with the 2 million tonnes of coal which it consumes per annum? Will he bear in mind the national investment which probably runs to over 1 billion, in that works?

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. I hope that he will have the opportunity to make his speech about the impact on his constituency in the Easter Adjournment debate or an ordinary Adjournment debate.

If it is not possible to find time for a debate on the deployment of cruise missiles and manoeuvres in and around Berkshire, will the Leader of the House speak to the Secretary of State for Defence and ask him to come to the House to make a statement? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that opinion polls show that the majority of people do not want cruise missiles? Now that they have been brought outside Greenham, surely we should have a statement in the House.

I have said that I shall convey comments to my right hon. Friend. We shall see whether he thinks it appropriate to make a statement.

As the Housing and Building Control Bill gives important new rights to council tenants to buy their properties and is completing its proceedings in the other place, can we have it back in this House for its final stages before Easter?

I do not think so, but I shall look at it. If it is not before Easter, it will be as soon afterwards as can reasonably be secured.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 618 on the contraction of the coal industry, which incorporates my name and those of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends?

[That this House fully supports the miners in their struggle to save jobs and safeguard the future of theindustry; and demands the setting up of a public inquiry into the administration and management of the National Coal Board (Scottish Area), such an inquiry to take account of the fact that consultation and conciliation have been replaced by confrontation, that six collieries in Scotland have been closed (two are the subject of appeal) over the past 15 months with the consequent loss of 3,000 jobs to the Scottish economy, and that any further closures would have a lasting adverse effect on the economic and industrial base of Scotland and would add to the already disgraceful level of unemployment.]

Having read that motion, would he not agree that its content reflects the serious situation facing the coal industry in Scotland? If we cannot have a debate next week, will he at least consider arranging a statement based on the fact that the Government have made a serious miscalculation of the impact of the miners' strike on the nation's affairs? Will he give an assurance that there will be a ministerial statement, not only on law and order but on how the Government have been misled about the impact of the strike on industrial life?

In no sense do I question the good faith of those who have signed that early-day motion, but I should have thought that thoughtless industrial action would do more to contract the coal industry than almost anything else. I shall, of course refer the hon. Gentleman's anxiety that there should be a statement to my relevant right hon. Friends.

After the London Regional Transport Bill has effectively taken London Transport out of the hands of the GLC, would it be possible to have a debate on precisely what useful functions are left to the GLC? Only an extremely tiny amount of parliamentary time would be involved.

Other legislative initiatives may give my hon. Friend the opportunity that he seeks.

Does the Leader of the House recall that on several occasions when I asked for statements on the progress or otherwise at various disarmament talks, he fobbed me off by suggesting that such matters might be raised during foreign affairs debates? Is he aware that I did exactly that the other day and that in reply the Minister made no reference whatever to my remarks? In view of that, is there any possibility, when telling his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about cruise missiles and so on, of asking the Foreign Secretary whether he could do something about this matter as well?

I have over the years experienced exactly what the hon. Gentleman feels. However, I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence so they are fully apprised of feelings in the House on the cruise missile issue.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the serious problems of the unemployed especially the long-tern unemployed, when it should be possible for Conservative Members to make it clear that while the Government have a sound policy on these matters it needs to be developed further in certain vital respects?

I cannot hold out the prospect of a debate specifically tailored to the situation raised by my hon. Friend, but with a little deft footwork he should be able to make his speech on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Will the Leader of the House now give a precise date for the introduction of the Bill to assist those living in prefabricated reinforced concrete houses? Will he bear in mind the anxiety that this problem is causing to many thousands of people throughout the country?

The hon. Gentleman speaks for many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the anxiety that has arisen from this housing situation. I cannot give the precise date he seeks, but it will certainly be very soon.

As there is a serious possibility that the House may be asked to authorise an increase in own resources, will my right hon. Friend find time to consider the undertakings given by my hon. Friend Lord Whitelaw on 24 November 1977 that any increase in the powers of the Community could be authorised only by Act of Parliament? If the Government intend to dishonour Lord Whitelaw's undertakings, will they publish a paper setting out Lord Whitelaw's undertakings, and saying which they propose to honour and which to dishonour?

Will the Leader of the House do his utmost to get a statement on the mining dispute, not only about the lack of coal that is now evident in some areas, which is important to the furtherance of our dispute, but about police activities? Will he take into account the fact that the police do not appear to be evenhanded? Does he agree that in an industrial dispute the police have always been expected not only to allow people to get to work—as, to some extent, they are doing—but also to assist the pickets to carry out their activities? Does he agree that that does not mean smashing the windscreens of miners' cars, and that it should not mean so many policemen being dragged from other parts of the country that part-time policemen have had to be employed in Tewkesbury to arrest poachers?

That is all very interesting. I detect a slight touch of anxiety and hysteria in the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I shall, of course, pass on his remarks, along with all the others that have been made about the current miners' dispute, but the House would be well judged not to over-react. It is interesting that for their Opposition day the Opposition have sensibly chosen other aspects of social policy.

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that there will be an early opportunity to have a full debate on the Griffiths report on the management of the National Health Service and the Social Services Select Committee report thereon? It is surely vital that the House can express a view on this important subject before decisions have to be made?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope to be able to announce such a debate in the reasonably near future.

Will the Leader of the House take notice of the fact that the South of Scotland electricity board has increased its charges by 4·4 per cent. on average? Is he aware that many of my colleagues are demanding a debate on this issue, realising, of course, that the increase is more than double that imposed on Wales and England? Does he accept that the Government played an important part in that increase, and that on that basis we demand a statement, or at least a debate on the matter?

I take note of the considerable concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed on this subject, which I quite understand. I shall, of course, refer his request to the relevant Minister.

Will my right hon. Friend expand on the commitment that was given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary the other day that if perchance — per evil chance—there were to be a recommendation to increase the Community's own resources, first, to 1·4 per cent. VAT, and then to 1·6 per cent. VAT, they will be separate items requiring separate measures in this House?

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will take part in Tuesday's debate, it would be most presumptious of me to make any comment ahead of him.

Although I realise that the Leader of the House is a self-confessed philistine, will he accept that there is great concern on both sides of the House about the great crisis affecting the arts, in view of the likely announcement by the Arts Council on Friday and the proposed abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils? We do not have a Minister in the House who can answer for the arts. In fact, the Minister does not even bother to come and listen any more. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment knows almost as little about the arts as about local government finance. Will the right hon. Gentleman please give us time for a debate on the arts? I am sure that that would have all-party support.

No provision has been made for a debate on the arts next week and I cannot offer any prospect of an early debate. There are plenty of other demands upon the time of the House that have to be taken alongside that of the Arts Council. If the hon. Gentleman would like to try his chance as a private Member I am sure that he will find the opportunity to raise these matters.

Bearing in mind that some time ago the House expressed its opinion on a code of picketing which the Government had agreed with the TUC and which, speaking from memory, limited the number of legal pickets to five or six, will my right hon. Friend arrange for our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to make a statement on Monday to guide us as to the status of that code of practice and how much confidence we should have in arrangements that have been negotiated and agreed between the Government and the TUC?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has already made a statement on pickets which is contained in Hansard——

It is still a statement. The day that the House does not admit a statement merely because it is written in Hansard we might as well go on half-time.

I shall refer the anxieties of my hon. Friend the member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

Despite having been pre-empted at some length by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), may I ask an additional question about the arts? In view of the range of dangers facing the life and work of the arts throughout Britain and the paucity of parliamentary time available for questions on the arts—a ridiculous 10 minutes once a month—will the right hon. Gentleman, who I am sure is not quite the philistine that others make out, consider whether we might have another five minutes a month because there will be an increasing demand for questions about the arts?

The roster for questions is usually a matter for discussion through the usual channels. I shall certainly see what can be done, if only to share the responsibility for any decision which is judged to be philistine.

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friends to early-day motion 614, in my name and those of my hon. Friends, on picketing and politics?

[That this House, noting the decision by one area of the National Union of Mineworkers to reverse the vote of its members to continue working on the ground that their safety is at risk; calls on the Leader of the Opposition to make plain his views on the actions of intimidatory pickets and on the need for a national ballot.]

Does my right hon. Friend realise that we understand that it would not be right to discuss the merits of the mining dispute but that it would be right for Parliament to discuss at an early stage the kind of picketing that is going on and to flush out the Leader of the Opposition who, in the terms of my motion, has clearly not spoken up on his views on democracy within trade unions or on the range of picketing action which is an affront to most people in Britain.

I note what my hon. Friend says and I am sure there is widespread support for those sentiments. However, I am grateful that he has not sought a debate next week.

Has the Leader of the House examined the replies that I have received from the Prime Minister to my questions on the Omani contract? Has he noticed that they are all evasive? They avoid telling the House and the country what happened and they stonewall all the questions. The public and the House demand to know the truth. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the Prime Minister that we do not intend to let go? We shall stick like limpets to this issue until the truth is told to the British people.

I have an interest in the handiwork of the hon. Gentleman's research assistant and I shall see that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is made aware of the sentiments that have just been expressed. But it is up to the hon. Gentleman to pursue the matter by what techniques he thinks appropriate and to be judged accordingly.

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to the request for an early debate on electricity prices in Scotland, because this is, after all, the first increase that we have had for over two years, and it is less than half the rate of inflation?

I think that there are many points to be argued in this debate, but I cannot go beyond what I said earlier in this respect.

Has the Leader of the House noticed that 170 MPs have now signed early-day motion 475 on the televising of Parliament, a huge number for any motion that does not include the name Mark Thatcher and a number which includes the cream of all parties?

[That this House believes that live and recorded television broadcasts of the proceedings of the House and its committees, when sitting in public, should be authorised as soon as possible; and urges the Government to arrange an early debate to agree the principle and the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the means by which this can be achieved, including the experiences of other legislatures, and to recommend the rules and necessary arrangements that should be adopted for televising the House.]

Bearing in mind the facts that arrangements in another place for televising will shortly be proceeding rapidly, that the majority of the public wants this Chamber to be televised, and that nothing else can put this Chamber at the centre of public attention, will he allocate a day's debate at an early date so that the House can come to a considered verdict on this important question?

Notwithstanding the elitist tone and argument that the hon. Gentleman sought to employ on this matter, of course I must note the significant number of signatories that he has collected. I cannot offer the prospect of a debate in the near future, but I take note of the strength of feeling.

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a full debate on the British electronics information industries, bearing in mind that there is at present a chronic shortage of semiconductor microchips which has a detrimental effect not just on the electronics industry, but on industry generally? There is great concern that the interventionary measures in the market taken so far by the Government are too late, and far too little?

I have real sympathy with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the topic that he has raised, but I think he will appreciate that I have difficulties in finding time for all the debates that the House would wish, and we have recently had the opportunity to debate the topic in the context of the ESPRIT programme. However, I will bear in mind the point that he makes.

Could the Leader of the House prevail upon the Attorney-General to come to the House next week and make a statement, preferably oral—"oral", not "aural" — as opposed to written, on how he manages, through a crystal ball, to tell police officers that they can judge how people, when they are travelling on a road, are likely to commit an offence 200 or 300 miles away? I refer obviously to the miners' dispute. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot get the Attorney-General to do that, could he get him to come to the House next week, and make a statement on how he stood what I was taught at school is English law on its head — that one is innocent until one is proved guilty—because, by that written statement, and by the actions of the police in the last ten days, the implication is that people are guilty before they have even been tried or suspected of a crime that they might commit 200 or 300 miles away?

I will most certainly convey to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General the anxieties, and the request that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Does the Leader of the House recognise that there is a need for a statement or debate on the discredited section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, and does he therefore intend to arrange for such a debate to be held before the House rises for Easter recess? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Attorney-General will be expected to make a statement about a particular case, and as quickly as possible, once that case is not longer sub judice?

There are no arrangements in prospect for a debate upon the Official Secrets Act between now and Easter.

Pontefract And Castleford (Police Action)

4.3 pm

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 10, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent condideration, namely,

"the arrest and questioning by police of 19 of my constituents."
I was informed last evening by the NUM branch secretary at Kellingley colliery in Yorkshire that 19 of my constituents had been questioned at Mansfield police station on Tuesday 27 March. The complaint that has been made about this interview by that NUM branch, and, indeed, by my 19 constituents, is that, prior to being taken into the police station, accompanied by two policemen for every man, they all had their photographs taken. When they arrived in the police station, they were interviewed individually by two plain clothes officers, who showed no sign of identification.

The great concern which the NUM officials, and, indeed, the men, feel on this matter arises from the questions which the men alleged were put to them, and for the benefit of the House, and my case, I shall quote them. The men allege that they were asked how they voted at the last general election. — [HON. MEMBERS: "Unbelievable."] I hear "Unbelievable" from the Government Benches. When this was first put to me I shared that view, and that is why I think it is so important and necessary for the House to hear it this afternoon, rather than read it in the press.

Secondly, they were asked how they would vote if there were only a Conservative party and a Communist party in the country. — [HON. MEMBERS: "Unbelievable."] Unbelievable again, but this is what these men say was put to them. They were asked who they had voted for in the election for the president of the NUM. They were asked how much they paid in union subscriptions. They were also asked several questions about the local NUM branch secretary at Kellingley colliery. They were asked to——

Order. I hesitate to stop the hon. Gentleman, but he must show why this is an urgent matter.

I am showing it by the questions and the fact that this strike has now been operating some three weeks and the House has had no opportunity to show its feelings. I am trying to isolate this case and to point out the seriousness of what is alleged to be taking place.

These men were asked to name the organiser of the local strike centre. They allege that they were asked what newspaper they read, and whether it was the Morning Star. They were asked a rather silly question, in my view: what did they think of Mr. Scargill driving around in a Jaguar? They allege that the officer said to them that their boss himself did not do that kind of thing.

Let me say immediately that I am no police basher. I believe that policemen are playing their part in maintaining law and order. They have a job to do, and undoubtedly they will be doing it, and certainly doing it on instructions. But for the House, and, indeed, for the country, it must be of great concern if these allegations are true. I am not in a position to say that they are. However, in this sorry affair—and it is a question not only of the case to which I am referring, but we read every day about different incidents, some by police, some by pickets—surely it must be the wish of the House that the truth should come out. If the only possible way that the truth can come out, for the benefit of the police and of the men in question——

And the Nottinghamshire people—I fully endorse the remark made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon). The facts should come out. The longer it goes on with one person accusing another, and another person accusing somebody else, the worse the situation gets, and it is getting very bitter. I do not know whether the House realises the situation that is developing in a particular area. No one wants to hear threats of anarchy and so on. It is time that the matter was investigated. I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to grant a debate so that we can at least decide whether there is sufficient evidence for a public inquiry to investigate whether the allegations are true.

The hon. Member gave me notice before 12 o'clock midday that he would seek to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the arrest and questioning by the police of 19 of his constituents."
The hon. Gentleman has made some very serious allegations in his application. I listened carefully, as I know the House will have done, to what he said. He will know that the only decision that I have to make is whether the matter should take precedence over the business set down for today. I regret that I do not consider the matter that he has raised to be appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 10, and therefore I cannot submit his application to the House.

Later——

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point relates to your ruling, which I am not challenging, on the application of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) under Standing Order No. 10.

The opportunities for the House to discuss the serious position in the Nottinghamshire coalfield are limited. The only opportunity will be the Adjournment debate for the Easter recess next Thursday. I understand that nothing is laid down in the rules, but that debate tends to be limited to three hours. Because of the special circumstances, can you rule that the debate should be allowed to run its course next week and not be curtailed by the Government?

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to do that. I fully understand that the issue to which the hon. Gentleman refers is serious, but there is a Standing Order which limits the debate to three hours. The hon. Gentleman will have to seek other opportunities to raise the issue, and those opportunities are available. We had a fairly wide discussion on the matter this afternoon.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie
(Banff and Buchan)