Business of the House (Hansard, 11 May 1987)
HC Deb 11 May 1987 vol 116 cc75-80

7 pm

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

Further to my statement earlier today, the business for the rest of the week will now be as follows:

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

In observing the reactions to the right hon. Gentleman's statement and to the trailer that he gave at half-past three, I was reminded of the saying of Sir Robert Walpole on the day of the outbreak of the war of Jenkin's Ear. Listening to the crowds crying behind him and in front of him, Sir Robert said: They now ring the bells, but they will soon wring their hands. I am sure that we all share the sense of occasion, both because we have heard the last business statement of this Parliament and because we have listened to the swan-song of a very civilised Leader of the House. The change of business is welcome. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government have lost four fifths of their Finance Bill, most of the Criminal Justice Bill, and all but a few clauses of the Local Government Bill, and that they will get the Scottish poll tax Bill only if they successfully vote us down on the guillotine motion on Wednesday?

Will the Leader of the House also confirm that the Opposition have prevented the railroading of the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Miscellaneous Changes) Orders Nos. 2 and 3 which at virtually the last moment would have changed the boundaries of no fewer than 50 constituencies, including several marginals? This is deathbed gerrymandering.

For the promotion of greater understanding, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that we are right in believing that Dissolution will take place before the House meets on Monday and that there will be no Prorogation ceremony?

Mr. Biffen

I shall deal first with the right hon. Gentleman's last point. It is anticipated that the House will adjourn on Friday and that Parliament will be dissolved before 2.30 pm on Monday 18 May. In those circumstances, the House will not have to meet on Monday 18 May. I can confirm that there will be no Prorogation ceremony.

The right hon. Gentleman made several other points. In all charity, I hope that he will attend to these matters of controversy with rather more professionalism when he gets to the hustings in the east end. Any attempt to judge from some esoteric references and a historical analogy with Walpole about the wringing of hands comes down to the real question: who will be wringing whose hands?

It would have been most high-handed to seek to secure the passage of the entire Finance Bill and of the entire Criminal Justice Bill during the few days that are left in this Parliament. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that these are all matters of sound legislation deferred and will be there for the next Parliament to confirm with an appropriate majority.

The right hon. Gentleman tried to manufacture a most extraordinary stone wall with a few wisps of straw in suggesting that there was some design to railroad the Bill on parliamentary boundaries. Even though we have had some unseemly precedents from the Opposition, there was never any question of the House being invited to confirm boundary changes of the character that he identifies within a few days of the House being dissolved.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Does the Leader of the House anticipate that the usual channels will agree that the Landlord and Tenant (No. 2) Bill should get Royal Assent?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look at that, but my hon. Friend will find that that Bill is in another place.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that all but about a dozen clauses of the 130-clause Criminal Justice Bill have been dropped? Does he not believe that it would have been better to drop the proposals to bring in the new Scottish rating procedures rather than use a guillotine which will be unpopular in many parts of the House? The Leader of the House suggested yesterday in a television interview that arrogance in government is an unacceptable practice. That very arrogance will be shown in pushing through this unpopular poll tax measure.

Mr. Biffen

When the House has a chance to see what part of the Criminal Justice Bill will be presented for consideration and determination, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will believe that the clauses are well worth the support of the House. If the alliance parties decide to vote against them, that will be noted and will take its place in the election campaign. As for the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Bill, the timetable motion that made provision for supplementary orders was passed on 11 February. That is known to be a central part of the Government's policy, and they are perfectly entitled to take the measures that they now propose.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Will the motion on the Channel Tunnel Bill be wide enough to enable the Government to make a statement on the discussions over the weekend between British Rail and the Channel Tunnel group, or will it be purely procedural? In view of the short time allowed for the remaining stages of the Consumer Protection Bill, can my right hon. Friend ensure that the Minister concerned will show the same flexibility and charm to Conservative Front Benchers with minor reservations about some aspects of the Bill as he has shown to Opposition Members?

Mr. Biffen

I have admired the ability of my hon. Friend to elicit charm and co-operation from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the Consumer Protection Bill, and I am sure that that will continue over the next few days. As for his point about the Channel Tunnel Bill, whether he can make the points that he wishes to make will be in the determination of the Chair.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Will the Leader of the House say a brief word about the effect of his statement on the meetings of Committees upstairs?

Mr. Biffen

I am advised that Committees set to meet this week to consider Bills and statutory instruments will do so, with the exception of Standing Committee A, on the Parliamentary and Other Pensions Bill, and Standing Committee D, on the Consumer Protection Bill. Those two Committees will now be taken on the Floor of the House. Committees set down for next week will obviously not sit.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

As we shall clearly have all the parliamentary time in the world between now and the end of the week, may I take it that one of the measures that my right hon. Friend may have in mind for Friday is the one foreshadowed by our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on Saturday—the long overdue intention to deal with the penetration of our fishing fleet by foreign interests? Will it be taken in all its stages on Friday? If my right hon. Friend is going to disappoint me, will he give an assurance that the measure will be at the top of the Government's list of priorities when they are returned with a massive majority on 11 June?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend played an active part in campaigning for that legislation. I can confirm his second supposition, and will see whether his first question can be met.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

May I express my commiserations with the right hon. Gentleman, who has been an excellent, witty, pleasant and fairly fair Leader of the House, on his final disappearance from the Front Bench? May I also say, however, that we shall feel much less regret about the political demise of most of the Government Front Bench? Is not the conglomeration of rubbish that we have to get through this week one of the best reasons for fixed-term Parliaments?

Mr. Biffen

I shall have to observe the generous premise to the hon. Gentleman's question—which. however, will do me no good whatever in Shropshire, North. As to the fixed Parliament argument, such arguments will doubtless go on. However, as it is now one of the prized arguments of the alliance parties, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman sees himself in a future bridge-building role.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

We have heard about the ringing of bells and the wringing of hands, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important question is who will be kissing hands after the election? Are we not all agreed that it will be my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), and that she will remain the first Minister of the land?

Mr. Biffen

That is a most pertinent observation.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the Gracious Speech has been virtually decimated by his statement today? How many of the proposals in the Gracious Speech have been carried through in the present Parliament? Not only has the right hon. Gentleman's statement today decimated the Government's legislative programme, but for the past two months, in preparation for this cut-and-run election, Secretaries of State have come to the Dispatch Box abandoning statements and proposals made in the Queen's Speech—notably the Secretary of State for the Environment, who abandoned the proposal for the privatisation of water. Is it not true that the Government have been preparing for an opportunist early election for the past three months?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that the business for the remainder of this week confirms the passing of a substantial amount of legislation.

Mr. Speaker

Questions should be confined to the business for the rest of this week.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the clause in the Finance Bill that, above all others, highlights the difference between the Conservative and Labour approaches to taxation, clause 20, which reduces the standard rate of tax from 29 per cent. to 27 per cent., will be secure?

Mr. Biffen

I have absolutely no doubt that it will be secure.

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

Why can we not have a statement on the Guinness affair? Is it because the Leader of the House and Ministers are once again dragging their feet and do not want the matter to be debated in Parliament? In so far as the Guinness affair, and a number of other City scandals of the past few years, will come centre stage in the next general election campaign as we show up the deficiencies in contemporary Conservativism, why cannot the Leader of the House ensure that the House has the opportunity to debate those matters before the weekend?

Mr. Biffen

I have presented a fairly brisk programme to the House for the remaining few days——

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Drop the poll tax.

Mr. Biffen

Of course, I take note of the hon. Gentleman's request that there should be a statement on what he likes to call the Guinness affair.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that on Tuesday, when we debate the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, two amendments tabled in my name—if they are judged to be in order and are called—will give us an opportunity to talk about the Guinness affair?

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's guidance. I am sure that it will not be lost on Opposition Members.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that he will be asking you, Mr. Speaker, to give preference in the debates during the remainder of the week to those droves of Conservative Members who will not be re-elected on 11 June?

Mr. Biffen

I am happy to confirm that I have never sought to give guidance to you, Mr. Speaker, on who should be called to speak.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether there will be a statement before the end of the week on Government launch aid for the A330/A340 project?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I cannot answer immediately, but I shall refer it to my right hon. Friends who will be making any such decision.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Will the Leader of the House tell us why it is not gerrymandering to withdraw the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Miscellaneous Changes) No. 3 Order, when it was named for business on Thursday of last week and was tabled only a few days after the No. 2 order? It would appear that only the No. 2 order is to be taken. The other order deals merely with minor anomalies which it would be sensible to put right.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is a fair controversialist, will acknowledge that the Home Secretary has an obligation to lay such matters. Whether Parliament then proceeds is a different consideration.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

First, will the Leader of the House tell us what will be the procedure for dealing with the private business that was due to be discussed tomorrow, and the 30 or so private Bills before the House?

Secondly, may I give the right hon. Gentleman one last opportunity to let his hair down and tell the House the answer to this question? He has announced a great deal of business, and a great deal has fallen. The Government have an overall majority of 138. Although the Opposition welcome the opportunity to go to the polls and defeat the Government, is this not yet another example of too much power lying in the hands of one person—the Prime Minister—who is able to call an election not to serve the interests of the country or the business of the House, but purely to serve the narrow interests of her party? In a democracy, is that not far too much power to reside in one pair of hands?

Mr. Biffen

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that these matters are held in one pair of hands, it is a somewhat naive interpretation of how political authority is exercised.

As for the point that is of more immediate relevance to next week's business, no other private Members' Bill is coming to us for the consideration of amendments made in another place other than that to which I have referred. In accordance with precedent, such Bills that have reached this advanced stage are afforded an opportunity to be passed, otherwise it is, by convention, not the occasion to find time for private Members' Bills and private Members' business has been lost.

Several Hon. Members

rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was about to say that I would call those hon. Members who have been rising. I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that a very important debate is to follow the business statement. I urge hon. Members not to make the speeches that they might make during the election but to confine their questions to the Leader of the House to the business for this week.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

It is generally agreed—and I concur with the view—that the Leader of the House is fundamentally an extremely decent man and that he has been an extremely good Leader of the House. As the building of the Channel Tunnel would have a profoundly bad effect on the northeast of England, will he do the decent thing by burying it and leaving it to the next Parliament to decide?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has made generous but wholly unmerited remarks about me, which leads me to say that he could do so only because of his misconception about the likely future of the Channel Tunnel Bill. What is being proposed will enable the Bill to be available to the next Parliament, and then we shall see what course is taken.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Leader of the House's statement mean that the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Bill will not be passed this week? If so, will he tell his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that immigration officers at ports of entry should stop acting as though the Bill had already become law and that they should revert to the practice that operated before this particularly disgraceful piece of legislation was ever brought before the House? Will he also ensure that at this moment the Kurdish asylum seekers from Iraq are released on temporary admission and that their case is properly considered by the Home Secretary, as he is bound to do within the terms of the Geneva convention?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Bill is in another place. I cannot in any sense accept his comments on Home Office officials, but as he requests that the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should be drawn to his anxieties, I shall see that that is done.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Since my right hon. Friend has said that right hon. and hon. Members will be Members of Parliament until Monday, is he able to say when returning officers will be able to issue the documents so that hon. Members can forward their nominations, bearing in mind that there is to be a bank holiday?

Mr. Biffen

I am touched that my hon. Friend should feel that that falls within the responsibilities of the Leader of the House. I do not have the faintest idea what is the answer to his question, but I shall look into the matter and see what can be done.

GLOBAL ISLES COURT OF RECORD