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Business Of The House

Volume 928: debated on Thursday 17 March 1977

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The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Michael Foot)

The business for next week will be as follows: MONDAY 21ST MARCH—Second Reading of the Redundancy Rebates Bill.

Remaining stages of the Nuclear Industry (Finance) Bill.

Motion on EEC Document R/2639/76 on coking coal for the steel industry.

TUESDAY 22ND MARCH AND WEDNES- DAY 23RD MARCH— Debate on a motion on the statement on the Defence Estimates, Command No. 6735.

At the end on Wednesday, motion on financial assistance to the Meriden Motor Cycle Co-operative.

THURSDAY 24TH MARCH—Debate on the Chairman of Ways and Means' ruling of Thursday 10th February.

Motions on the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) Orders At 7 o'clock, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed Private Business for consideration.

FRIDAY 25TH MARCH—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 28th March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Motions on the Family Income Supplements (Computation) Regulations.

It is expected that the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed Private Business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

The House will wish to know, Mr. Speaker, that it is intended to propose that the House should rise for the Easter Adjournment on Thursday 7th April until Tuesday 19th April.

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why we have not had a Supply Day for three consecutive weeks when it is customary to have about one a week? Has it anything to do either with by-elections or with the fact that the right hon. Gentleman feels that we might ask for a debate on the Price Code and on gas prices?

With regard to Thursday's debate on the ruling of the Chairman of Ways and Means, we understood that discussions were taking place with regard to that and that those discussions had not yet been concluded. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman look at that matter again and substitute some other business for it—possibly a half day on Supply?

Taking the second of the right hon. Lady's questions first, I shall look at any question of any discussions which may be going on about Thursday's business. But it is our view that this motion should be discussed. Requests have been made to me that it should be discussed. We believe that the motion should be removed from the Order Paper. The proper way to do that is to have the discussion upon it and for the House to come to a conclusion. So I think that we should proceed with that business.

On the right hon. Lady's first question about Supply Days, we have complied fully with the Standing Order on the subject—Standing Order No. 18(7)—as I am sure she will acknowledge. This is a question of when Supply Days take place. One Supply Day which might have been asked for by the Opposition is a second day for debating the public expenditure matter that we are debating today. If the Opposition had wished to have a second day and to provide a Supply Day to discuss that, they could have had it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for acceding to the request from the Liberal Bench to take the Nuclear Industry (Finance) Bill at a reasonable hour. But will he say why it took him until the afternoon of the day in question—yesterday—to make that decision?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also say whether any statement is coming forward about a White Paper on direct elections, since it would be rather nice to be able to compare his version with those already printed?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement of our desire always to have as many as possible of our debates at a reasonable hour. We were hoping that we would be able to continue with that business this week, but when we discovered that the discussions on the previous measure were proceeding somewhat more lengthily than had been calculated, we made arrangements for the Bill to be postponed. I think that that was a reasonable arrangement to make.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's question about a White Paper on direct elections, I advise him to await the publication of that White Paper before he jumps to any conclusion or makes any pronouncements.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that a public lending right Bill completed all stages in the House of Lords about a month ago. For the past three weeks, he has been expressing sympathy to the authors. When will he do something about it?

As I have said to my hon. Friend on many occasions, I am fully in sympathy with this Bill, especially as I have to declare my own interest every time that I refer to it. We had some difficult experiences when trying to get the Bill through this House before, and that has to be taken into account by the Government in deciding whether we are able to provide time for it.

Will the Lord President allow time to debate whether the work on the buildings designated for the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies should continue, in view of the fact that the Scotland and Wales Bill is now in limbo?

The phrase "in limbo" might be misinterpreted. Therefore, cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's description. But I believe that there are some Questions down for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland about this matter next week, and dare say that my right hon. Friend will be able to reply to the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) then.

Can my right hon. Friend tell us in general terms how the talks on devolution are proceeding, especially in view of the news which reaches us from Plaid Cymru that the party has called upon its Members not to have talks with my right hon. Friend?

I am prepared to have talks with anyone who is prepared to have talks with me. I am even prepared to talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) whenever I get the chance. So far, the discussions seem to be proceeding quite amicably. I cannot add anything further about their progress, but certainly we are trying to have them as speedily as we can. As soon as I can report to the House about them, I shall do so.

How many Early-Day Motions have been given time for debate in the period that the right hon. Gentleman has been Leader of the House? Is he aware that there are now a number of Early-Day Motions which have massive support from the Back Benches? Is it not time that at least one of them was debated?

I shall find out the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question. But I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and every other hon. Member who follows the way in which business in this House is conducted will appreciate that many Early-Day Motions, even if they are not themselves actually debated, affect the actions which Governments take and the debates in this House. Some of them are incorporated in other debates. The Early-Day Motion serves not only the purpose of asking for an early debate but also that of indicating opinion throughout the House.

Will the Leader of the House recognise that many people in Scotland will be deeply disappointed that there is no mention in the business for next week of a Referendum (Scotland) Bill? Can he say when such a Bill is likely to come forward? I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, with the break for Easter coming up, he and his Government should be aware of the Ides of May, which is 3rd May, the date of the local government elections in Scotland. If there is not a Referendum Bill before us by that time, his party will be in very bad trouble in Scottish local government.

As I have said to those with whom I have had talks about it when representations have been made on the subject, we have not slammed the door on the proposition for a referendum on the Scotland and Wales Bill. But, in general, our attitude is that we believe that any pre-Bill referendum would have great difficulties about it. We do not believe that the questions which could be put would be precise. We think that it could cause confusion rather than remove it. Therefore, we are extremely doubtful whether such a proposition would be welcomed.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that every Member of Parliament who has spoken about compensation for vaccine-damaged children believes that there should be an independent inquiry into the effects of vaccines? Everybody has been critical of the Government's handling of this important matter and the immunisation programme is now being damaged. Can we have a debate on this subject as soon as possible?

I cannot promise an immediate debate on the matter, but that does not mean that we do not recognise the importance of the subject and the views expressed in various parts of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman will recall Early-Day Motion No. 217 which I mentioned last Thursday, and which is signed by over 130 hon. and right hon. Members, dealing with the payment of gratuities to those serving in the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm. The right hon. Gentleman said that an announcement would be made in the defence debate. Will he confirm that? Does he not appreciate that if the Government go back on their promise concerning gratuities it will be regarded as despicable and utterly dishonest?

[ That this House believes that any attempt by Her Majesty's Government to disclaim the obligations to pay the gratuities promised on retirement to Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm air crew who were enlisted on short-service commissions, would be a flagrant breach of contract and grossly dishonest; and calls upon the Minister of Defence either to confirm immediately that the Government has every intention of honouring the undertakings given to these men, or failing this to resign his office forthwith.]

I have nothing to add to what I said to the hon. Gentleman and others on this subject at an earlier stage. A statement will be made soon.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate pay policy and dividend control, especially in view of the fact that Arnold Weinstock and others are able to escape dividend control and income tax to the tune of £278 million and when Lord Thorneycroft, the Chairman of the Tory Party, can, in another capacity as Chairman of Trust Houses Forte, make an announcement that directors of that firm will receive an extra £240 a week pay arising out of the group's recent profits?

All these subjects and the whole matter of pay policy, and whether it is or is not being applied to some members of the community, will be in order for debate in our discussions on the Budget.

Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed Early-Day Motion No. 222, which has been signed by 170 Members in all parts of the House? Does it not indicate a general disenchantment with the quality of our debates on foreign affairs, and will he consider as a matter of urgency a debate in this House to enable us to consider methods by which we can discuss foreign affairs in a more constructive way in future?

[ That this House, dissatisfied with the infrequency and nature of debates on Foreign Affairs, urges the Government to set up a Standing Foreign Affairs Select Committee whose Reports should be 43bated in the House within 30 days of publication.]

I do not know that there should be any condemnation of last Friday's debate on foreign affairs. I did not participate in it, but I gather that it was a good debate. What the hon. Gentleman and others are asking for is the establishment of a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I know that there has been pressure for such a Committee for many years. It is not a novel suggestion, but I still think that there are considerable objections to it. I also think that there are considerable objections to the general proliferation of Select Committees dealing with many subjects. Indeed, a total of 300 Members of the House now serve on Select Committees. If we increase the number of those who serve on such Committees, it may further injure debates in this House. That is one of the problems we face.

Did my right hon. Friend notice the report of the arrest in Moscow yesterday of Mr. Anatoly Sharansky? Is he aware of the widespread fear that this may lead to a return to the days of the Stalinist era of the "doctors' plot"? Therefore, will he arrange for an early debate on the forthcoming Belgrade meeting or some method of discussion that will enable hon. Members, and especially those who seek detente, to express their horror at this terrifying trend?

I understand the strong feelings in all parts of the House about human rights. I agree that it would be a good idea if we were to discuss these matters. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred to this matter generally in his recent speech to the House, and the question was discussed by my right hon. Friend on his visit to Washington.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say when the White Paper on direct elections will be published? Is it not time that that happened? Furthermore, is it not also time that we debated the astonishing mess over the Sunday trading laws?

On the first matter mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I cannot give an exact date, but I do not think that he will have to wait too long.

On the second matter, I shall have to examine any suggestion of an "astonishing mess "that may have arisen in this connection. I cannot promise a debate on the matter to remove that problem immediately.

In view of the fact that 250,000 men are now unemployed in the construction industry, and since that industry faces serious problems, is it not time that we had a full-scale debate on the problems of the construction industry so that we may deal with these urgent and vital matters?

I agree with my hon. Friend that these matters connected with the construction industry are urgent and vital. Representations on the subject have been made to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I have no doubt that that is one of the important matters that will figure in the Budget debates.

Will the right hon. Gentleman in the foreseeable future consider finding time for a full debate on broadcasting policy? Are not the imminent publication of the Annan Report, the possibility of an increase in the BBC licence fee, and the current controversy over the BBC's handling of Northern Ireland matters three very good reasons for having such a debate?

I agree that there should be a debate on the Annan Report, which should appear fairly soon. That surely is the best way to deal with the first two matters mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Will my right hon. Friend consider giving time for a full-scale debate on unemployment in view of the latest figures, instead of having regional debates on unemployment which are unsatisfactory when compared with the total situation?

I agree that the House needs to debate these matters. We have had some debates on regional aspects of employment, and I am sure that there is legitimate pressure from my hon. Friends for further debates on a regional basis. However, I also believe that the whole economic situation as it affects unemployment must be debated, and that is bound to be a major feature of the Budget debates.

May I press the right hon. Gentleman about Thursday's business and the motion on the ruling by the Chairman of Ways and Means? The ruling and the motion are extremely important matters for the House of Commons. I appreciate that circumstances in relation to the Bill changed after the ruling was given. I also appreciate that the Leader of the House is fulfilling an undertaking he gave in honour to my right hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Macmillan), but I am right in saying that discussions are taking place on this matter, which is important in regard to the procedures to be adopted in future. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue the consultations and will not necessarily proceed with the motion on that day unless and until the discussions are completed.

It is right for the House to proceed to that debate partly because the request was made for such a debate. The motion was tabled in the names of several leading Members on both sides of the House, and I gave answers at an earlier stage that a debate was to be held. I do not think it right that a motion of that character should be left on the Order Paper for any length of time.

My hon. Friend suggests that the motion should be taken off the Order Paper. But it is not my motion. It was tabled by other hon. Members. If they want to take the motion off, that is their responsibility. I believe that it is right for the House to debate the matter and that that debate should proceed on Thursday. That does not mean that we shall not have discussions.

In view of the fact that there is mounting frustration and apprehension in this House and in the country at certain EEC Commission directives which sound almost like commissar directives and which will have a deleterious effect on this country, flowing from the effect of the common agricultural policy, may the House have a full-scale debate on the subject so that we may examine the developments flowing from our accession to the Community and the effects of policies adopted in that period of time.?

There was a debate in the House on Wednesday on a very important aspect of our policy and we have had a number of debates on individual matters. There will be more such debates next week. I am prepared to consider a further debate on the way in which the House discusses Common Market directives or proposals or, indeed, our whole relationship, because I have always acknowledged that we have not yet found a proper solution to these problems.

Will the right hon. Gentleman try to find time for a debate on the Shackleton Report on the economic future of the Falkland Islands, bearing in mind particularly the fact that these people are totally British and are utterly dedicated to this country? Is he aware that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House are unwilling to see them handed over to alien totalitarian rule?

The whole House shares the hon. Gentleman's feelings about the rights of the people in the Falkland Islands and this was recognised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in his statement. I am not excluding a debate, but if I were to agree to all proposals for debates from hon. Members it would not be possible for us to fulfil our obligations on Supply Days when, as I have indicated, we have been meticulous in ensuring that we do.

May we have a debate on the SUITS-Lonrho affair which appears to be a shot-gun marriage of convenience between the unacceptable face of international capitalism, in the form of Tiny Rowland, and the unacceptable face of Scottish capitalism, in the form of Sir Hugh Fraser, who also gives vast financial contributions to support the unacceptable face of Scottish nationalism?

I am always willing to accept any invitation from my hon. Friend and as soon as possible I shall follow him to the grisly portrait gallery that he has described.

Can the right hon. Gentleman help us on a small procedural matter and explain whether the vote at the end of tonight's debate should be regarded as a purely procedural matter or as an expression of the House's opinion on the Government's White Paper on public expenditure?

Will the right hon. Gentleman be able to find time for a debate next week or the week after on Early-Day Motion No. 234 in the name of his hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) and 24 others of his hon. Friends?

[ That this House believes that the proposed increase in gas prices places an intolerable burden on ordinary working people, and since it has been imposed in defiance of the Price Code calls into question the whole of the Government's prices strategy and therefore calls on Her Majesty's Government to freeze gas prices at their present level for six months, and to allow future increases in nationalised industry prices only in strict conformity with the Price Code.]

Not only my hon. Friends but everyone else will look with proper suspicion at a request for a debate from the hon. Gentleman.

Because of past experience and obvious evidence. I do not think that my hon. Friends will be eager to respond to an appeal from the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit).

If the hon. Gentleman would like me to enlighten him on the procedure of the House, I shall be glad to take him aside one day and give him some proper tuition.

In view of the improving economic situation, will my right hon. Friend discuss with his right hon. Friends the possibility of bringing forward proposals before the recess to reduce the rate of unemployment? Can he also give an indication when we may expect a statement on the broadcasting of our procedures?

There was a parliamentary Answer a week or two ago about the broadcasting of our proceedings and I have nothing to add to it. I doubt whether we shall be able to have a debate in the immediate future, but the Government wish to proceed as quickly as possible to get the broadcasting apparatus in operation.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment made a statement a week or two ago and dealt with many important aspects of the unemployment problem. The general question of employment will be a central feature of the debate on the Budget, which will last for several days.

Order. From now on, I shall call only those hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye since we started business questions.

Can the right hon. Gentleman indicate when the House will have an opportunity to consider the Second Reading of the Police (Scotland) Bill, which was first published in November? Will he confirm that this is another Bill that the Government are hoping to drop quietly because of the opposition that it has aroused?

Dropping Bills quietly is not so easy. It is an art that takes some cultivation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not one of the Bills on which I am trying my practised hand.

As the Prime Minister has confirmed on his return from Washington that the refusal to allow Concorde to land in New York is an abrogation of a treaty between the British Government and the United States Government and has told us that President Carter feels unwilling or unable to do anything to implement the treaty—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) is treating us to a speech about his opinions of Concorde. What has this to do with the business of the House?

The hon. Gentleman could have jumped up 20 times this afternoon with similar points of order.

Will the Leader of the House ask either the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Trade to make a statement to the House about the unwillingness or inability of President Carter to uphold treaties that were freely entered into by the British Government and the United States' Government, as this may have widespread further implications for other agreements between the two Governments?

The Prime Minister indicated in replies before he went to Washington and on his return that this matter had to be raised in a way that was likely to be most effective. I am sure that the House is confident that my right hon. Friend raised it in the best way.

In view of the enormous amount of money that we have to spend on importing timber and the disastrous decline in planting in the private sector, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman gave us the debate on forestry for which the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) asked at least a fortnight ago?

There has been a parliamentary Answer on this subject and I have already communicated with the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More). The answer is an interim one and does not take the matter much further. I appreciate the desire for a debate on this subject, but I ask the hon. Members for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) and Ludlow to consult the Answer that was given recently.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen Early-Day Motion No. 170 in my name and those of some of my hon. Friends? Would it not be opportune for the House to debate this issue before the price rise on 1st April?

[ That this House deplores the double standards implicit in the Government's intention to waive the provisions of the price code in order to impose an 11 per cent. tax on the price of domestic gas from April next, noting in particular the low priority given to the interests of the consumer and the need to reduce the cost of living.]

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's description of the situation, but this matter can be discussed in the debate later today.

When will the House have an opportunity to debate the findings of the Bullock Report?

Neither of the Bullock Reports has been dropped. I shall be happy to provide time for debates on both of them as long as I do not get too many objections from too many quarters that I am interfering with the sort of debates that some hon. Members opposite desire.

Will there be a statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment next week on the implementation of the development land tax and the Community Land Act, as the administrative costs of the tax now equal its revenue and the Act was effectively killed by the Treasury before Christmas?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but I shall look into the matter to see whether there is anything in his remarks. I do not expect that there will be a statement.

As we rush towards broadcasting the proceedings of the House, can the right hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that he will not trespass on Cromwell's Green to put any equipment of the BBC or anyone else there, and that it will be reserved for its rightful owner?

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are better ways in which the House can provide the broadcasting for which it has voted than by desecrating Cromwell's Green. As I have told the hon. Gentleman in reply to his correspondence, if anybody is to be put next to Cromwell it should be John Lilburne.