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Business Of The House

Volume 124: debated on Thursday 17 December 1987

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3.30 pm

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for the first week after the recess?

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

MONDAY 11 JANUARY — Second Reading of the Housing (Scotland) Bill.

TUESDAY 12 JANUARY—Progress on remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

Motion on the Industrial Training Levy (Construction Board) (No. 2) Order.

WEDNESDAY 13 JANUARY—Completion of remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

Second Reading of the Income and Corporation Taxes Bill [Lords] which is a consolidation measure.

Motion relating to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee.

THURSDAY 14 JANUARY—There will be a debate on a motion to approve the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Autumn Statement.

FRIDAY 15 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Will the Leader of the House give us a firm indication today of when in the new year we can expect to debate the televising of the proceedings of the House of Commons?

Could the right hon. Gentleman ensure a further statement on the implications for benefit payments of the error in the retail prices index calculations?

Last week I asked the right hon. Gentleman about consultation with hon. Members about the new immigration rules. Could he now ensure an early debate and give us some idea of when it will be?

Following last night's approval of an increase in office costs allowance for my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), will the Leader of the House accept that my hon. Friend and all who want proper provision for disabled people so that they can enjoy the full rights of citizenship are grateful for what he has done? However, will he confirm that this is an interim arrangement and that further special provision to help my hon. Friend will be made when the full extent of his special needs have been quantified and when a statement can be made to the House?

The Leader of the House knows that there is considerable concern about the way in which the Government are using and misusing prior restraint, prepublication censorship and the laws of confidentiality to constrict the rights of reporting and broadcasting to an extent not really justifiable on grounds of national security. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us a guarantee that soon after we return in the new year he will give a day of Government time to a debate on these matters so that we at least can exercise complete freedom of speech?

Finally, I wish the right hon. Gentleman the compliments of the season.

I shall start with the last point and reciprocate warmly by giving my best wishes to everybody in the House for Christmas and the new year.

I cannot announce a date for a debate on the televising of Parliament. I have indicated that I hope that the debate will take place about the end of January, and I hope that I shall be able to be very clear about that in the first business statement when we return after Christmas.

On the matter of the retail prices index my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled will make a statement in the House tomorrow before we rise for the Christmas recess.

On the matter of the immigration rules, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Opposition have prayed against the statement of changes in the rules. I shall certainly look for an opportunity for an early debate in the new year.

The Government motion passed last night on the matter of additional assistance to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in his office costs allowance was an interim measure. The Services Committee is looking into the case for a higher figure and, if necessary, the House will be asked to reconsider it in the new year.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of broadcasting and related matters. I understand that the High Court this morning rejected the BBC's application for a discharge of the injunction. Therefore, the matter remains sub judice. We can consider the possibility of a debate once the matter has been settled.

As one who has been reasonably in favour of making progress in the matter of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind the report of the Chairman of the Committee of Selection and perhaps in future leave it to the House to decide what steps to take?

I shall table a motion after the recess to which amendments can be tabled. My hon. Friend is right in saying that it will be a matter for the House to decide.

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to look at early-day motion 415 regarding the effect of electricity price increases on those in poverty, particularly the elderly?

[That this House condemns the proposed 9 per cent. increase in prices in electricity; notes that this increase is more than twice the rate of inflation; regrets the example set by the previous Labour Government of increasing electricity prices by 30 per cent. more than inflation; calls on the Government to recognise that the people affected by this increase will be the old and the cold, the poor and the sick, the 1,200 who die as a result of energy poverty each year and the 90,000 who have their electricity supplies cut each year; and further calls on this Government to implement a proper conservation programme in order to conserve our natural resources for future generations.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) there has already been an anomaly under the new severe weather payments in which neighbouring communities have qualified in one case but not in another? Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether, after the recess, there will be an opportunity for a debate on fuel poverty and that, if further anomalies arise out of the new regulations for severe weather payments, the Secretary of State for Social Services, who we hope will be restored to full health by then, will come to the House and make a statement on needed changes?

I cannot promise an early debate on the matter, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has already made a full statement on electricity prices. Even following the price increases in April next year, industrial and domestic electricity prices will be lower in real terms than they were six years ago.

Will the Leader of the House provide time as soon as possible after the recess for a debate on the crisis in the National Health Service in Northern Ireland where, despite the emergency payment of £2·1 million to meet the present shortfall, the health boards face the prospect of closing hospital wards and lengthening waiting lists for operations? That is a grim situation which is made even worse by the fact that discrimination is practised by the Government against Northern Ireland in that Northern Ireland will receive 1 per cent. less for the next financial year.

Northern Ireland certainly received a share of the increased resources announced yesterday by my hon. Friend the Minister for Health. However, I shall certaiely refer the hon. Gentleman's comments to my right hon. Priend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the treatment by the pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, of people in Britain who have been damaged by the drug Opren has been disgraceful? After paying American claimants, it has forced British claimants to go through our legal system. Many of those claimants are old and gravely disabled. The consequence has been a lawyers' paradise in which the claimants receive less than the lawyers representing them and the claimants are gagged for life. May we have a debate on improving the system for the payment of compensation to people damaged by drugs?

I recognise the concern and interest that the right hon. Gentleman takes in these matters. I cannot promise an early debate, and I do not think that it would be right for me to comment on the substance of what he has said, but I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

While wishing my right hon. Friend a happy, successful and trouble-free new year, may I express the hope that there is no truth whatsoever in the rumours that certain private Members' Bills will be the subject of three-line whips?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his good wishes, particularly the wish for a trouble-free new year, which I reciprocate strongly. However, as he knows, matters of whipping are not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary.

What plans has the right hon. Gentleman for the important subject of speech therapy provision in our schools? Does he agree with me that many parents throughout the country, including in my constituency, are very distressed and worried because schools do not have sufficient staff to help their children with speech defects? Is it not tragic that these youngsters will not have the expert attention that they need while they are at school when the problem could be solved? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to help us?

The matter does not fall within my responsibility directly, but it is an important issue. I cannot promise time for an early debate on the subject, hut I shall certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request.

Given that there are 80 people who wish to speak in today's debate on the rates reform Bill, will my right hon. Friend consider bringing back the ten-minute rule which was so successfully run in the last Session of Parliament and enabled many more hon. Members on both sides of the House to contribute to important debates?

I recognise that there is a wish to do this in a number of quarters of the House, but, when we tried before, there was a degree of controversy. We shall see whether we can make progress in the new year.

May I draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to early-day motion 461 which deals with the threatened closure of Newbattle Abbey college?

[That this House condemns in the strongest possible terms the announcement by the Secretary of State for Scotland to withdraw Government funding for Newbattle Abbey College, Dalkeith, thereby effectively bringing about the closure of the college; notes that the decision has been taken without any consultation whatsoever and without any regard to the outstanding contribution made by the college over many years to adult education; and urges the Secretary of State immediately to enter into discussions with the college authorities with a view to reversing his damaging decision.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that this is a national matter in Scotland because it is the only adult college of that type in Scotland? Will he convey to the Secretary of State for Scotland and his staff the fact that great discourtesy seems to permeate the Scottish Office., as it announced the withdrawal of funding for that college and never even had the courtesy to notify the local Member of Parliament—myself—about that decision?

I apologise if there has been any discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman; I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would not have intended it. I shall look into the matter for the hon. Gentleman.

Government grants for Newbattle Abbey college will be withdrawn from the end of the 1988–89 academic year. Continued support can no longer be justified, given the great increase in opportunities for mature students to enter further and higher education since Government support was introduced. Funds released by the withdrawal of support from Newbattle Abbey college will be devoted to encouraging wider access to further and higher education in Scotland in ways more relevant to current needs.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, towards the end of the last Parliament, we had an excellent general debate on agriculture and countryside problems, after a good deal of nagging from the Conservative Benches? As debates on agriculture now tend to get stuck in the ploughed field of EEC documents, will he consider having another general debate on the subject?

I remember the nagging, the debate, and my hon. Friend's contribution to it. I shall certainly bear in mind what he says, but I cannot promise a debate in the immediate future.

May I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the fact that our right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now in Brussels negotiating the quotas for the steel industry in this country and for Europe in general, and that that discussion is taking place without a debate having first taken place in the House? Our right hon. and learned Friend is therefore unaware of the opinions of those hon. Members with steel-producing constituencies and wider interests affected by steel quotas. He has had a recommendation from the Select Committee on European Legislation for such a debate in good time, and a debate could have been held so that he could have had those views in front of him. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that this does not happen again and that we shall have a debate as soon as we return from the recess?

I cannot promise a debate as soon as we come back. I have a feeling that my right hon. and learned Friend is well informed about the views of most hon. Members. If my hon. Friend wants to make sure that he is, there will be Question Time on the Wednesday after we return.

Will the Leader of the House, as a matter of urgency, arrange for a debate on the old and the cold? People are adopting a cynical attitude towards Members of Parliament who, year after year, shed crocodile tears about the plight of the old and the cold, yet every winter we are faced with the same problem and no solution. It is a matter of absolute urgency that the House should debate the matter while winter is with us and find not a short-term solution but a long-term solution to the plight of the old and the cold.

I do not know about crocodile tears. I cannot find time for a debate, but I should welcome one. We on the Government side could show a substantially better record than that of the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported.

Will the Leader of the House explain why, as yet, the House has had no opportunity to debate the Government's attitude to their golden shareholding in Britoil? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, under the provisions of Britoil's articles of association, there need only to be "reasonable grounds" for supposing that a bid for control is taking place? Does he consider that, with BP now owning 25 per cent. of Britoil, and Arco holding a further 15 per cent, such reasonable grounds exist? Will he explain why the Government are hiding from the House of Commons on this issue? Bearing in mind the commitments that were made in the 1982 debate about Britoil's independence, will he guarantee that the Government will hold their golden share until the House of Commons has had an opportunity to discuss the issue?

The decision that was taken by BP in that case was a commercial one. It was taken by BP itself. No proposals have been put to the Government for moving further to a takeover bid. If any bid were made, the Government would consider the circumstances and whether to use the powers of the special share.

Given my right hon. Friend's responsibility for the allocation of funds through the House to political parties, and given that my right hon. Friend is well aware that civil war has broken out between the rump of the Labour party and the Trots in Watford, and, doubtless, in other parts of the country as well, will my right hon. Friend say what action he intends to take in that regard?

I am conducting a review of the matter, and any evidence or information that my hon. Friend wants to give me will be considered.

Is the Leader of the House aware that next year will be the 40th anniversary of the National Health Service? Therefore, will he reconsider the answer that he gave about the need for an urgent debate when we come back? We could then try to ensure that the National Health Service is kept in being beyond its anniversary date in July. There is obvious uncertainty on Government Benches. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said that the National Health Service has enough money, on Wednesday the Minister for Health said that it is £95 million short, and most people in the country believe that it is £2 billion to £3 billion short.

If they listen to the hon. Gentleman, I am not surprised. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman does not understand the figures or whether he does not like them, but the Government's record on the Health Service is extremely good, and is a lot better than that of the Government he supported.

The decision of the European Court of Justice on whether British industry and commerce should be obliged to pay VAT on gas, electricity, water and sewerage and on all new industrial and commercial buildings will be published in mid-January. It is likely that it will be the first time in the history of our Parliament that a foreign court will have instructed a British Government on what taxes they should levy. Will the Leader of the House promise us that, if the case goes wrong, we shall have a debate on the burden on industry and on what will be a massive new loss of sovereignty for Parliament?

I recognise my hon. Friend's continuing concern in these matters. I honestly do not believe that it would be right for me to anticipate any decision that any court might make next year.

It would be helpful if we could have a debate on the care of the elderly. Late last week, one of my constituents, an elderly person, left his home to get a newspaper. When he went back, he found that the electricity board had gained entry to his house, cut off the electricity supply, and put a padlock on his door. The poor man was so confused that he wandered the streets for hours and was admitted to the local hospital until the matter was sorted out by his social worker. Surely, the House should not tolerate such highhanded manners from an electricity board. We should discuss the matter because it is shameful that our elderly people are treated like that in the winter.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that high-handed action by anybody is not tolerable. I cannot promise an early debate, but if he will write to me I shall ensure that his letter is passed to the appropriate person.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a lot of time in the House is spent on the affairs of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but that it has been a long time since a debate was held on the northern region? Will he bear in mind that there are 30 hon. Members, from different parties, representing over 3 million people, who would very much welcome a debate on the north-east?

When I became a Member of the House, I thought that we spent rather a lot of time on Scotland and Wales. It has ever been thus, and I guess that it always will be. However, the northern region should certainly not be neglected. I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Is the Leader of the House aware of repeated allegations about mistreatment of and cruelty to elderly and confused people in Kent? Is he further aware that, although Kent county council has met and discussed the matter, it has not taken any initiatives and is ducking the issue? I have called for a public inquiry into this by the Department of Health and Social Security. Will the right hon. Gentleman press that Department because up to now it has refused to institute an inquiry? What will happen to those people? Are they to be neglected?

I am sure that Kent county council is well able to discharge its duties and responsibilities in this matter. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to support his allegations, no doubt he will ensure that that is passed to the appropriate body.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was wrong the last time that he made that allegation and he is totally wrong to repeat it. I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend that the hon. Gentleman should be asked to produce the evidence on which he is making the assertion that Kent county council has done nothing whatsoever about the allegations. Most of the problems were put right before the programme was shown by the television company, which did not even bother to consult the social services department before finding out whether it was telling the truth. However, if we are to discuss the matter more fully, perhaps we should have a debate on it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as I am sure that the House is, for his comments. However, I cannot promise an early debate.

Does the Leader of the House remember our exchange last Thursday on early-day motion 429?

[That this House calls for the profits made by the House of Commons Refreshment Department, including the Kiosk, during the week 14 December to 18 December inclusive, to be donated to the Ethiopian Famine Appeal.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of any decisions or recommendations having been made by the appropriate Committees? Is he aware of the importance of an announcement being made before the appeal closes at the end of this week? I should like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your sympathetic interest in this matter.

The Government have made their concern clear about the suffering in Ethiopia. However, there is nothing further than I can add to what I said to the hon. Gentleman last week.

Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on the wider issues of the organisation and structure of the National Health Service, not so much on the narrow point raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but on the whole issue of the way in which it should be financed, organised and be made accountable?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in saying that we shall want to return to those issues. Although I cannot promise an early debate, I believe that it is an important subject.

Given the promise of a debate on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, we are left to assume that a deal has been cobbled up through the usual channels. Would it not be an absolute scandal if English Conservative Members, who gained no votes in Scotland, were press-ganged on to the Committee when Scottish National party Members, who have votes in Scotland, are deliberately excluded? Would not such a deal also represent a betrayal of the Scottish electorate by the Labour party?

If a deal has been cobbled up between the usual channels, I hope that somebody will tell me about it. So far as I am concerned, it is a matter for the House to decide, and that is what will happen.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 350?

[That this House extends its best wishes to President Mangope and to the people of Bophuthatswana on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of their Independence; applauds their successful efforts to establish a non-racial, democratic, free-enterprise society; and looks forward to the day when their achievements receive greater international recognition.]

It congratulates President Mangope and the people of Bophuthatswana on the 10th anniversary of its independence from the Republic of South Africa. The motion now carries 110 signatures and there are 22 signatures from Opposition Members to an amendment that is not altogether unsympathetic towards that country. May I also draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a leaflet published this week by the Foreign Office entitled "British Aid to Southern Africa"? Will he provide time early in the new year for a debate on southern Africa, with particular reference to the British Government's policy towards the front-line states?

I cannot promise an early debate on that subject. In fact, the British Government, in common with the rest of the international community—with the exception of South Africa — do not recognise that country as an independent state.

Given that the major national issue for the past two or three months, if not longer, has been the Health Service, does the Leader of the House accept that it is unsatisfactory that the only time we have had to debate that subject has been on an Opposition day? Will he reconsider the various requests that have been made for a debate? Will he also bear in mind that, even if £6·7 million is given to the West Midlands regional health authority, Shropshire alone needs £1 million to prevent massive hospital closures, yet it has no chance of receiving that money from the sums allocated. Will the right hon. Gentleman accede to the national concern, if not the concern in this House, and provide time to debate the issue?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Health made a statement yesterday, and I believe that it was well received. The comments that I have read in the national press and others suggest that he responded well to the concern and difficulties about the Health Service. I cannot promise an early debate on the subject.

May I pick up the theme of freedom of speech mentioned by the Leader of the Opposition and ask for an early debate to investigate the circumstances in which, two days ago, the Strangers Gallery came to be full of homosexuals and lesbians during the debate on the Local Government Bill? It should be noted that those people tried to suppress contributions from Conservative Members and to support and cheer loudly the contributions from Labour and Liberal Members. May we have an inquiry into how they came to be in the Gallery in such numbers and why they were allowed to continue to attempt to interfere so vociferously with the proceedings of the House?

I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend has said, and will write to him. I understand from the Serjeant at Arms that there appeared to be a large number of members of the public in the Gallery whose interest in the debate on Tuesday night was such that they tried to interrupt it. I congratulate the Doorkeepers on their action in containing the disturbance.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motions 264 and 333?

[That this House pays tribute to the staff of BBC Radio London for their invaluable contribution to the cultural life of London over many years; views with considerable concern reports that Radio London faces closure; and calls upon the BBC to make a clear statement of intent to maintain Radio London with the necessary resources to enable the station to enhance its coverage of activities in the capital city.]

[That this House views with concern the reported plans of the BBC management to abandon their Radio London Service; notes that Radio London has a quarter of a million listeners a day in Greater London, and another quarter of a million in the home counties and runs on a tiny budget compared with the other two London radio stations, and yet during some parts of the day attracts a larger audience; further notes that it has programmes directed towards the blind, the elderly, the Jewish, black and Asian Communities; further notes that since 1982, 10,000 people have found work through Radio London Job Search, more than 10,000 blood donors have been recruited through Radio London Bloodline, and that last year Radio London raised more than any other local radio station for Children in Need: (170,000; and calls upon the Home Secretary to make it clear to the BBC that if Radio London were scrapped, London would no longer be receiving a proper service from the BBC.]

There are many rumours that Radio London will be closed down. One of the early-day motions is signed by Labour Members and the other by Conservative Members. No one on the Opposition Benches, and, I hope, no one on the Conservative Benches, although there are a few, would wish to interfere editorially in the affairs of the BBC. However, as a public corporation, surely the public of London should be consulted about the future of an extremely popular radio station. In view of the threat not only to Radio London, but to local radio generally, may we have an early debate so that at least the BBC board of management knows what public representatives are saying about some of its decisions regarding the future of local radio?

The Government's Green Paper "Radio: Choices and Opportunity" explains the Government's view. There continues to be a case for BBC local radio which provides a distinct service alongside the major developments proposed for independent radio. However, the Green Paper made clear that it is and must remain for the BBC to decide, within the financial limits and other resources available to it, how best to carry out its obligations under the charter.

Will my right hon. Friend take time to look at Monday's Order Paper and note the motion in my name to discuss the Peak Park planning board? Is he aware that, of the 23 people appointed to the board by councils, only three live in the area, which is a disgrace? Will he find time to have a debate, or go one better and promise me time to examine a Government Bill to put right this outrage?

This is an important matter. Perhaps my hon. Friend will try his luck with an Adjournment debate, but I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

In view of the long-standing and continuing discrimination in Northern Ireland in employment, will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the recent SACOHR report and the Government's response to it?

I recognise that there are particular problems in Northern Ireland, but I certainly do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. However, I shall refer it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I cannot promise an early debate.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that for decades the defence of our country has depended crucially upon a deterrent system that has allowed for no winners? Does he also accept that one of the side effects of the INF agreement is to create the expectation that that may be replaced by a system that would allow the temptation of winning? Is not that such a crucial fact that it is deserving of a major debate in the House, rather than merely an Adjournment debate?

It is certainly an important subject, and we shall find time to debate it in the new year, but I cannot promise an early debate.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me in my usual spot.

I was giving you a compliment, Mr. Speaker, as I know at what time I shall be called.

Will the Leader of the House reflect on the fact that record numbers of people are living without a decent roof over their heads and sleeping on the streets of every major city? Many families are forced to spend five years or more in bed and breakfast accommodation, with all the attendant dangers for their children and the difficulties of bringing them up in such circumstances. There are also record low levels of building for rent—only building for sale is going on now. In the light of that, and instead of ignoring the problem, will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on this crucial issue as soon as we return in the new year so that we, as a society, may consider housing as a right and not as a privilege for those who can afford it?

The Government's Housing Bill, which is at present before the House, directly addresses some of these issues. The speedy implementation of a number of its provisions will help immeasurably in this area.