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Business Of The House

Volume 885: debated on Thursday 6 February 1975

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May I ask the Leader of the House to give the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Edward Short)

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

MONDAY 10th February—Consideration of Private Members' motions until seven o'clock.

Second Reading of the Export Guarantees Bill.

Remaining stages of the Arbitration Bill [Lords] and of the Biological Standards Bill [Lords].

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Education Bill.

TUESDAY 11th February—Motion on EEC Documents on Energy Policy (R/446/74 and R/3333/74).

WEDNESDAY 12th February—Remaining stages of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 13th February—Supply [10th Allotted Day]—for which the subjects have been chosen by the Liberal Party.

Until about seven o'clock, debate on a motion on "The class-based nature of British life (including reference to industrial partnership)", and afterwards, a motion on "The quality and cost of public administration".

Motion relating to the Building (Second Amendment) Regulations, 1974.

FRIDAY 14th February—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 17th February—Second Reading of the Coal Industry Bill and of the Safety of Sports Grounds Bill [Lords].

Perhaps the Leader of the House will help us, because all sides of the House will need some help about tomorrow's business. There is a serious point about tomorrow's business on which I think the House would like some guidance. Will the Leader of the House give some information about the motion which has appeared on the Order Paper today to set up a Select Committee to examine and report on the proposals contained in the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, which is down for Second Reading tomorrow? This is surely a rather unusual procedure. The House would like to know whether that motion will be put before the House tomorrow. Will the decision whether it goes ahead be contingent on the Bill tomorrow receiving a Second Reading?

I come to next week's business. I am disappointed that the Leader of the House has still not found time for a debate on foreign affairs. Will he give some indication how soon he will provide that time? There have been many requests for this debate, and he will no doubt know that only yesterday, following the statement on Cyprus, there was a further request from my right hon. Friend, which I think received support on both sides of the House, indicating the urgent need for a debate on that aspect of foreign affairs, as well as others.

Finally, I should like to look slightly further ahead and ask the Leader of the House whether, in view of the very important proposals and their nature, he will urgently consider providing two days for the Second Reading debate on the Industry Bill, bearing in mind the precedents that two days were given by the Conservative Government for the debates, for example on the Industrial Relations Act and the Local Government Act.

First, on the business tomorrow, perhaps I could explain this motion. The main business tomorrow is a Private Member's Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. White), supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), dealing with reform of the abortion law. While I applaud their diligence and the care with which they have assembled that Bill, we feel that it is in some ways inadequate and in some ways defective and would not command general support.

On a matter of this importance, where a great many people have very deeply held views, I feel that we should try to get a generally agreed measure. I therefore felt that it would be very useful indeed to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. The Select Committee will be able to consider the Bill itself, the Lane Report and our experience with the existing Abortion Act. I hope that from that consideration there will emerge the outline of a generally agreed measure on abortion. I hope that this will commend itself to hon. Members in all parts of the House.

I certainly had considered the need for a foreign affairs debate, and I will arrange it, but I am afraid that it will not be for a week or two.

If it is the general wish of the House, I would make a second day available for the Second Reading of the Industry Bill.

While I appreciate what the Leader of the House said about tomorrow's Bill, I am still not clear whether the Select Committee will be set up irrespective of whether that Bill receives a Second Reading.

My motion will come after the Bill. I would propose that whether or not the Bill gets a Second Reading, it would be useful to send this subject to a Select Committee.

Is my right hon. Friend proposing that we should have an economic debate at an early stage, as the Government will soon have to take major decisions and the House ought to have the chance to express its views about them?

No, Sir. I have no plans in the immediate future for a general debate on economic affairs.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it absolutely clear that whether or not tomorrow's Bill is passed, a Select Committee will definitely be set up?

I cannot do that. That is a matter for the House. But what I do undertake is that whether or not the Bill gets a Second Reading, the motion proposing the setting up of this Select Committee will be moved and put to the House.

My right hon. Friend has confounded confusion. Will he look again at what he has said? Will he send the whole question that this Bill was supposed to cover and the Lane Report to a Select Committee but on condition that the wrecking Bill down for tomorrow's business is withdrawn? That is the only condition on which we would agree to a Select Committee.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend agrees about a Select Committee. I should have thought that that would have general support throughout the House. I am afraid that the question whether the Bill is withdrawn is entirely a matter for my hon. Friends and for its sponsors.

I am as confused as everyone else on this matter. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's logic and that it may well be a good idea to send this matter to a Select Committee. This does not affect me as I must be here anyway, but there are other hon. Members who were planning to be here only if there is to be a vote. They are therefore entitled to know whether there is likely to be a Division on the Bill tomorrow as a matter of general information. If the Leader of the House is not able to tell us, perhaps one of the sponsors would say whether it is intended to pursue the Second Reading tomorrow.

The hon. Gentleman will realise that I cannot say whether there will be a Division. I wish that I could say on what we shall be having Divisions from one day to another.

When may we have a statement as to the Government's intentions both about ridding Somerset House of its civil servants and about the future use of that building, as it is totally unsuitable for use as a British theatre museum, as has been suggested?

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in this matter. I shall certainly see whether I can get any information about it for him.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen Early Day Motion No. 236, in the name of his hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) and signed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, asking that the Government set up a Select Committee on Agriculture? In view of the very grave difficulties which face the industry at present, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that this would be a most welcome comfort? Will he give an undertaking that a statement will be made next week or a debate allowed in the early future to allow this Committee to be set up?

[ That, in view of the present problems facing the agricultural industry, of the need to study and make suitable proposals to improve the Common Agricultural Policy, and of the need to expand agricultural production, to ease balance of payments problems and to consider the detailed regulations on agricultural matters issuing from Brussels, the Government should now appoint a Standing Select Committee on Agriculture.]

No, Sir, I cannot do that. I recognise the importance of this matter, but there is a tremendously heavy load of Committee work at present, so I can give no undertaking at the moment.

Will my right hon. Friend again turn to tomorrow's business? Will he confirm that Motion No 34 on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill will be put tomorrow, or is that to come on another day?

Secondly, will he confirm that if it is to be debated there will be a possibility of three votes—one on whether the Bill should be withdrawn, one on whether the Bill should have a Second Reading, and one on whether the matter should be referred to a Select Committee—in which case all hon. Members, whatever their interest, who are concerned about the subject, should be present.

It will be a free vote and the Question will be put after the Second Reading of the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will think about it, since the proposal will allow the whole question to be considered. It will allow the Roman Catholic Church, and anybody else who wishes to do so, to give evidence to the Committee. From that I hope that we shall achieve an agreed measure on the reform of the abortion law. I hope that that commends itself to all hon. Members.

Before the Industry Bill is debated in the House, will the Bills to introduce the Scottish Development Agency and Welsh Development Agency be published by the Government? If not, will there be a day, before too long, when we can debate that matter in its own right?

No, Sir. The Bills will not be published before that. However, the normal Second Reading debates will take place after the Bills are published.

As I understand the situation regarding tomorrow's business, whether there is a Second Reading or not the motion to appoint a Select Committee will be put forward. Does that of itself preclude the other stages of the Bill, or shall we find ourselves in the farcical situation in which a Select Committee is considering a Bill which is going through the Committee stage and Third Reading?

Certainly that will happen if the Bill is read a Second Time tomorrow. If that happens the Select Committee will go on side by side with that.

Will my right hon. Friend agree to give time for the urgent presentation of a Bill to amend and repeal the conspiracy laws which have been used so savagely against the Shrewsbury Two? Will he also accept that many of us are prepared to undertake one or more all-night sittings similar to those when we prepared to consider legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act?

The Government have been considering the conspiracy laws. I agree with my hon. Friend that they need revising.

Will the Leader of the House confirm my understanding, which is that whether the Bill set down for debate tomorrow obtains a Second Reading or not, it will largely be null and void? There will be a Select Committee. If the Minister believes that there will be agreement in that Committee, he is a cockeyed optimist. We shall lose nine to 10 months with no guarantee of legislation following the report of the Select Committee.

I am very sorry the hon. Member feels that way. I thought it would meet the general wish of the House that hon. Members on both sides should try to agree on a measure dealing with abortion. That is the purpose of the Select Committee, which will be able to send for persons, hear their evidence, and consider the Lane Report and our experience and the Bill sponsored by my hon. Friends. I hope that from that a Bill can be drafted. Therefore, this will not be a pre-legislation Committee, but very near to one.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of his hon. Friends, especially women, feel strongly on the matter of tomorrow's business and that Motion No. 34 does not tally with the statement which he made? Motion No. 34 speaks about the proposals in the Abortion (Amendment) Bill and does not mention the Lane Report. We believe that it is grossly improper that the motion should be in this form when the House has not considered the Lane Report, produced by a committee which sat for three years—and in a situation in which abortion figures are actually declining.

If my hon. Friend thinks that it is grossly improper to try to obtain agreement on a measure concerning abortion, I am afraid I do not agree with her. I am advised that this motion will enable the Committee to consider the Lane Report. I shall look at the point again. The motion says that the Committee will have power to send for persons, papers, records and so on, which is the normal form. I am advised that it will be able to consider the Lane Report and any matter concerning the working of the abortion law.

Has the attention of the right hon. Gentleman been drawn to the Prayer on the Order Paper on firearms licence fees? In view of the many important aspects of this order, will he arrange for time to be made available for debating that Prayer?

I cannot guarantee to give any time, but I shall look at the matter and let the right hon. Gentleman know.

My right hon. Friend stated that next week we would consider the orders dealing with European energy policy. May we be assured that we shall have much more time on that occasion than we had on a previous occasion, since this subject is of the greatest importance?

I am giving a whole day for those two orders. I make it clear that this will be one of the four whole days devoted to EEC affairs.

Will the right hon. Gentleman provide time for a debate on the Finer Report on one-parent families for which hon. Members on both sides have been calling for some time? Will he draw the attention of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the all-party motion on human rights in the USSR which was tabled last night?

[ That this House expresses its hope that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secre- tary will have successful discussions with the leaders of the USSR, but believes that the cause of detente cannot be satisfactorily fostered whilst Soviet citizens are denied of basic human freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights; and draws attention in this regard to the case of Georgi Vins, a Reform Baptist Pastor, recently sentenced to five years' hard labour plus five years' exile for conducting church services for members of his faith.]

On the second point, I will certainly do so. I have a great deal of sympathy with the first point. There was one short debate on that matter. I will bear the matter in mind for when we have more time.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my hon. Friends think that a foreign affairs debate is long overdue and that there is a considerable urgency about the need to discuss all sorts of problems under this heading? When does he propose to give us the opportunity to do that?

I am afraid that the nearest I can come to it is to say that there will be an opportunity before Easter. My right hon. Friend and I fought the last two elections on an enormous legislative programme. We have a considerable programme to get through, but I shall provide a day for a foreign affairs debate as soon as I can.

The Opposition greatly appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman said about a second day for the Industry Bill, which I think is very important. Secondly, may we take it that the motion on the energy orders will be simply to take note? Thirdly, the National Consumers Council was set up this week. It has had a chequered career since the White Paper in the autumn. It was referred to later as having been set up. It has now been set up. Can we have a discussion on this subject at some time in the future?

Last, I refer to the question of the Select Committee which has just been announced by the right hon. Gentleman. He may or may not be right in his decision, but I am surprised that he did not first consult the Opposition. I wonder whether he has considered the question of precedent. Such a proposal might be extremely undesirable, even with a difficult subject such as abortion, on which I admit there is no unanimity. Surely it is wrong for Governments to seek to impose Select Committees on Private Members' Bills quite so arbitrarily as this.

The right hon. Gentleman made three points. On the first, we are still considering the form of the motion for the debate on the EEC energy policy. We have not decided that yet. On the second point, I cannot promise any time in the near future for a debate on that matter but it is an appropriate subject for one of the right hon. Gentleman's Supply Days.

On the third point, there are precedents for this action. I feel—I hope the right hon. Gentleman agrees—that we should start to involve back benchers in the framing of legislation. It seems to me an ideal subject. There were considerable experiments in the 19th century in this procedure. All the railways legislation, for example, was drafted in Select Committees. A social topic of this kind is tailor-made for a Committee of the House to draft the legislation. I hope that when hon. Members think about it, they will feel it to be a very useful innovation.

Will my right hon. Friend try to find time for a debate on the textile industry, many sections of which are in great difficulties, with many thousands of workers on short time or out of work completely, with mills closing and firms such as ICI and other fibre producers facing competition not only from the Far East but now from the United States, where companies can undercut ICI prices because the raw material, oil, is considerably cheaper there?

Certainly. As I have said before, I have a great deal of sympathy with the difficulties of the textile industry. I will certainly refer my hon. Friend's question to the Secretary of State for Trade.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is now an urgent need for a debate on the whole question of contributions to political parties and the financing of political parties? Would he look carefully at the report of debates in the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill in the early hours of this morning and realise that the Government, without any consultation with the opposition parties, have for the first time introduced a major tax on contributions to political parties, which will have a considerably greater effect on the contributions to opposition parties than on those to Government parties, and that this is a matter of great constitutional sensitivity? Will he therefore take careful note?

The hon. Member asks me to take note. Yes, I take note. On the first part of his question, the Liberal Party has a Supply Day next week which it could devote to this subject. I cannot offer any opportunity to debate this matter in the next week or fortnight, but I hope before long to reintroduce the motion that I withdrew some time ago.

On this question of contributions to political parties, which has just been raised, curiously enough, by the Liberal spokesman, will my right hon. Friend take into account the fact that there is a good deal of scepticism on these benches whether this is an appropriate thing for the House to do? Will he also take into account the fact that it would seem totally out of place if, for instance, taxpayers' money was handed over to a political party such as the Liberal Party, which already has two secret funds which are not audited or shown to the general public and are controlled by three people? In view of that, is it not a total waste—

Order. We are dealing with next week's business.

My hon. Friend should refresh his memory by re-reading "Labour's Programme for Britain". The proposal appeared in that document.

May I support the plea of the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond)? Would the right hon. Gentleman pay special attention to the urgent crisis in the British textile industry, which cannot await a debate at some time in the future? Can we not have a debate at an early date, since otherwise there will be very high unemployment?

I am afraid not, but, as I promised, I will certainly draw the con- cern expressed by my hon. Friend and now by the hon. Member to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade.

Bearing in mind our experience this week in the important two-day debate on devolution, when a large proportion of the time was taken up with Front Bench winding-up speeches at the end of the first day and opening speeches at the beginning of the second, would my right hon. Friend agree that, in future two-day debates, it would be unnecessary to take up so much time in this way, and that that time should be available to back benchers?

It is worth considering whether a winding-up speech, say, is necessary on the first day. But these are debates, after all, and they must be opened and wound up. I think that my hon. Friend is being a little niggardly since I provided, exceptionally, two days to debate that subject.

May I draw the right hon. hon. Gentleman's attention to Early Day Motion No. 206, signed by more than 50 hon. Members, particularly in view of what the Prime Minister has just said about the discussion which will take place about the referendum and the percentage thereof which will be valid?

[ That this House recalls that, on 10th May 1967, Her Majesty's Government obtained a majority of 426, on an 87 per cent. poll of hon. Members, for the proposal to seek membership of the EEC; that on 28 th October 1971, Her Majesty's Government obtained a majority of 112 on a 95 per cent. poll of hon. Members, for the same proposition, notwithstanding an exhortation from Her Majesty's Opposition, against the proposition; and trusts that the full-hearted consent of Parliament thus given will not be over-ridden by half-hearted dissent or disinterest should the proposed referendum produce a low poll.]

Does he not accept that, while a general debate on the Common Market is important and welcome, this specific point is so important that we should have a debate on it in Government time at an early opportunity? Some of us believe that half-hearted dissent by the British people would be much less effective than full-hearted consent of this House.

No, Sir, I cannot promise a debate on the specific point, but the White Paper which my right hon. Friend promised will be published in about three-and-a-half weeks, at the end of this month. There will be a debate on it shortly afterwards, when the hon. Member will be able to deploy his point.

Since I have recently written a letter with many accompanying signatures to my right hon. Friend and have not yet managed to get a reply—I am sure that I shall get one—on the question of the Shrewsbury pickets, and in view of the widespread ignorance displayed on the Conservative benches about the facts of the matter, would my right hon. Friend seriously consider a debate on the Floor of the House, as that letter requested, since throughout our country an increasingly large number of people who want to defend human liberty would like this subject debated?

First, if my hon. Friend did not get a reply, I apologise. It may be that a reply was sent to the first of the 17 or so signatures. If not, I will see to that immediately. On the subject of the pickets, I cannot add anything to the answers given to a number of questions on this subject by the Home Secretary.

First, the right hon. Gentleman might suggest to his hon. Friend that the opposition, on the Government benches, uses some of its time to conduct that sort of debate. On the main point, would he accept that he is not exactly improving his reputation as the custodian of back bench liberties by the way in which he is conducting tomorrow's business? Would he not think it more appropriate, if the Government had wanted to achieve this approach, that they should have done it before this Private Member's Bill was introduced, and if they have only just thought of this approach, that they might at least wait until well beyond Second Reading until they continue it? If, further, the right hon. Gentleman thinks that a Select Committee of back benchers is the right way to get agreed legislation, why not start with a Select Committee on the Industry Bill or the National Enterprise Board Bill or whatever other piece of tomfoolery he cares to call it?

Would my right hon. Friend accept that at least a number of hon. Members welcome the Govern- ment's initiative in putting forward the proposal for a Select Committee, and that it is to be hoped that, between now and the start of tomorrow's debate, or even during the course of the debate, hon. Members will get together after having debated the matter for a whole day and then agree that the logic of the Select Committee idea is not to press the matter to a vote tomorrow but to refer it to a Select Committee with all the other documents involved and let the Committee look at it? I hope that this will find widespread support tomorrow.

I certainly agree with what my hon. Friend, one of the most experienced parliamentarians in the House, has just said. He will understand that I cannot pass any comment on what informal discussions may take place tomorrow.

Would the right hon. Gentleman nag the two distinguished Ministers on his immediate left—the Minister for Housing and Construction and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—to produce the Bill on land nationalisation as quickly as possible, so that it can be rejected by the House?

If the hon. Gentleman contains himself, the Bill will be produced before long and I hope that he will support it.

If the Private Member's Bill tomorrow is carried, could not the Select Committee and the Standing Committee be in serious conflict if they went on apace?

We must wait and see how we get on tomorrow. Of course it will turn out all right tomorrow.

Can the Leader of the House tell me when he proposes to have the Second Reading of the Air Travel Reserve Fund Bill, which has just been published? Will he ask that there should be a change on the back of the Bill and that instead of its being presented by Mr. Secretary Shore, this Bill should be presented by Mr. Secretary Benn, or that at least his name should be on the Bill, because it was Mr. Secretary Benn who persuaded people to go on Court Line holidays and lose all their money? Is he not associated with the Bill?

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman has made a grossly inaccurate and unfair statement, but the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade is, of course, the right name to head the list.

Would my right hon. Friend agreed that an unfortunate precedent may have been set in setting up a Select Committee on Abortion? Is he aware that it is highly unlikely that in the future he will get distinguished and expert people to serve on Committees such as the main Committee, to spend long periods of time examining the evidence and then to find that their whole work is to be resubmitted to a less expert Committee of this House?

We are most grateful to the main Committee which looked at this subject, but I do not think it follows that any Committee should have a right to have its findings accepted in toto by this House. There is no reason why it should not be possible to send for further evidence or indeed to hold debates in Committee.

On the question which so worries my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) about a low turn out in the referendum, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that if there is a low turn out it will be merely because of disillusioned pro-Marketeers?

On the business next week, could the Leader of the House say whether the Supply Day given to the Liberals is an additional Supply Day or one surrendered by a generous Conservative Front Bench? If so, will the Ulster Unionists and Scottish Nationalists also get a Supply Day or part thereof?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I am quite sure that he will do his best to ensure that there is not a low turn out. On his second point, the Supply Day given to the Liberals is, of course, an innovation. It is one of the normal 29 Supply Days conceded by the official Opposition. If other, minor or smaller parties want Supply Days they should contact the Opposition Chief Whip and try to influence him.

Would the Leader of the House remember his promise to consider a debate on the strategic plan for the North-West? Also, will he note Early Day Motion No. 176 on the Pic-Vic Railway Tunnel and consider giving time for a debate on this subject and on the way the Government seem to be neglecting the allocation of resources to the North-West of England?

[ That this House, mindful of the importance of the Pic-Vic Railway Tunnel not only to the transportation policy of the Greater Manchester Council but also as a positive contribution to ensuring the prosperity and quality of life for the whole of the North West Region, calls upon the Government to augment the transport supplementary grant allocated to Greater Manchester for 1975–76 and allow this vital regional project to continue.]

Putting those points together, I realise their importance, especially in relation to a debate on a strategic plan for the North-West. I notice that the hon. Lady the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) is not here today. I repeat, this is a very suitable subject for half a Supply Day. Nevertheless, I agree that it is important and I shall certainly bear it in mind.

May I ask the Leader of the House to clear up one important point on tomorrow 's debate? He will realise that all hon. Members will be keen to be in their constituencies tomorrow and also to be in the House. Am I right in assuming that if this Bill fails to get a Second Reading it will prevent another such Bill from being brought up this Session? If the Bill does get a Second Reading, would not the two Committees conflict?

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, certainly the two could go ahead together. There is no conflict. It is a Private Member's Bill and there is no earthly reason why the Select Committee should not continue. Let us wait until tomorrow and see how we get on.

I would ask my right hon. Friend whether, in view of the unemployment situation existing in the North-West, he would give us time to debate the question of unemployment in the near future.

As I said on the general economic debate, I cannot find the time in the near future, but the whole question of regional debates is one at which we shall have to look. Certainly, I am looking at it and will see what can be done about it.