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Business Of The House

Volume 930: debated on Thursday 21 April 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will state the business for next week?

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

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

MONDAY 25TH APRIL—Conclusion of the debate on the White Paper on Direct Elections to the European Assembly. Command No. 6768.

Motions on the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) Orders.

TUESDAY 26TH APRIL—Supply [14th Allotted Day]: there will be a debate on mobility for the disabled, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motion on the Local Loans (Increase of Limit) Order.

At 7 o'clock, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed Private Business for consideration.

WEDNESDAY 27TH APRIL—Second Reading of the Price Commission Bill.

Motion on EEC Document R/3247/73, R/3134/74 and R/402/75 on direct life assurance.

THURSDAY 28TH APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Motion on the Southern Rhodesia (United Nations Sanctions) Order.

FRIDAY 29TH APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 2ND MAY—Supply [15th Allotted Day]: subject for debate to be announced later.

May I return to the motion on which Monday's debate on the White Paper on Direct Elections to the European Assembly will be held? How are the Government to judge the views of the House except by a clear vote on the alternative voting systems?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already replied to the right hon. Lady on one aspect of that matter. If we were to follow the suggestion that I think she is making of putting down a motion and having a vote at the end of the debate on Monday, I am not so sure that we should be able to have all the opinions voiced in the way that had previously been indicated. I do not know whether the right hon. Lady was here when we had a discussion on some of these matters just before the House rose for Easter. Representations were made then that we should have the debate on the Adjournment or in some form which would enable this to take place. But of course the House will be able to give its opinion on these matters when we come to the Bill.

With due respect, there really ought to be a clear vote on either the first-past-the-post system or some PR system before the Bill is drafted. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because it saves time on drafting, apart from anything else. If the Leader of the House is saying that he cannot judge on a vote, how can he judge without a vote?

I am sure that there will be a vote on this matter eventually, and the House will then be able to judge it. I must say that I had not fully appreciated how concerned the right hon. Lady was about assisting us with our drafting, and of course I take that into account. But even so, I believe that what we are proposing is fully in accord with the normal method. That is that the decision on these matters should take place when the Bill is before the House.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether there is any truth in Press reports that Wales is to be excluded from the Government's future devolution plans?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter again. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also replied on that matter. The Government's commitment to devolution is as strong for Wales as it is for Scotland. The Government's proposal is that we should proceed on the same lines, although not on exactly the same proposals, for dealing with both countries. Our commitment to both countries remains as strong as it always had been. We are determined to carry through the measures for both countries.

Could we not have the first stages of the debate on the direct elections Bill next week in order that there should be sufficient time to draft new clauses on the method of election in the event that the Government get it wrong the first time and lose their clause on the election procedure? Otherwise, the Government will stand a very good chance of seeing this Bill go the way of the devolution Bill, for precisely the same reason—that they will not listen.

What the Government are doing is what we promised to do—that is, that we would listen to the two days' debate on the subject and then come to the House with proposals. That is a perfectly normal way for the House to proceed. I think that the hon. Gentleman and some others have a quite different interest altogether in the matter.

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the business arranged for 6th April, when the Whip issued for the day said that there would be a debate on sport. Many of those who had a very valid case to put about apartheid in rugby football were unable to do so because so many items were brought on before the debate on sport. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for time to allow a full day's debate on sport, so that we may expose the apartheid which exists in rugby football?

I certainly appreciate the concern that was expressed by many of my hon. Friends on this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Mr. Hughes) has also aproached me about it, as have others who were interested in that debate. There was certainly no desire by the Government to curtail it, but owing to a combination of reasons the debate was abbreviated. I think that we have an obligation to see whether we can provide further time. I cannot promise a full day, which my hon. Friend asked for, but I accept that we should see whether further time may be afforded.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that however carefully the Government listen to the views expressed in the debate they will not hear the views of more than 10 per cent. of Members, that those views are not likely to be unanimous, and that the right hon. Gentleman would get a much clearer idea if he would have a vote of the House on a motion of some kind?

I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants a vote so that the House shall have a reasonable chance to debate these matters fully or whether he and others want to pre-empt the decision of the House. [Interruption.] I said "pre-empt the decision of the House" because the best and proper way to decide the matter would be during the course of consideration of the Bill itself.

Will my right hon. Friend take into consideration the lack of time given to the important question of energy policy, having regard to announcements that have been made in various other parts of the Western world? Will my right hon. Friend try to make provision for a general debate on energy policy, taking into consideration the matter that was discussed in the House earlier today?

From earlier exchanges and from the question put by my hon. Friend, I appreciate the importance of the subject. I cannot promise an immediate debate, but we shall bear the matter in mind. I should have thought that other possibilities would arise from the proposals to come before the House.

Can the Leader of the House tell us when we are to have a debate on the Annan Committee Report?

I cannot give a date, as I have indicated before. Naturally, the House will want to have a full debate on the matter. Debates on this subject are taking place in the other place, but we must have a debate in this House as well. However, I cannot indicate the date yet.

While I note that my right hon. Friend has claimed that the Government's ultimate intention is to bring devolution to Wales, in the light of Press reports will he tell us what is the position of the Scotland and Wales Bill? Does he intend, as Press reports indicate, to separate Wales from the Bill or, better still, as the Press has also indicated, to drop the Bill? My right hon. Friend will be aware that the result of every opinion poll is that the latter step would commend itself to an overwhelming number of the electorate, particularly the Labour electorate, in Wales.

I know that my hon. Friend takes that view. He has put it on a number of occasions, and on every occasion when he has presented that view to the House, the House has turned it down.

Does not the Leader of the House realise that, having once already this Session produced a totally frustrated Bill, he is now on his way to producing another, through failing to put to the House the very issue on which it must make up its mind in view of the right hon. Gentleman's own White Paper?

A most extraordinary doctrine is now being enunciated, that it is the Government's responsibility to put to the House motions on particular aspects of a Bill before they bring the Bill forward. That is a strange procedure, and certainly not in accord with the normal practice of the House.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there would be no point in the Government's putting such a motion on the Order Paper for Monday's debate, because those on the Opposition Front Bench have so far been unable to tell us which electoral system they would prefer?

My right hon. Friend is almost encouraging us to change our mind. I agree that it will be interesting to find out what is the Opposition view in the end.

With regard to the resumed debate on direct elections next Monday, does the Leader of the House recall that it was a major concession by the Government that, in return for the continued support of the Liberals, there should be a free vote on the issue? Therefore normal precedents no longer apply. If there is not to be a Division on Monday, what is the significance of a free vote on the issue?

The Government made the announcement that there would be a free vote on the matter. It was not necessarily a concession to the Liberals. It was an agreement to make a concession to everybody else. We on the Government side have always held the view that this matter should be subject to a free vote of the House. But I do not think that that affects the issue that we were discussing earlier.

Would not the best thing be to get rid of the business on Monday, as there is so much argument about it? Let us forget the whole issue, and have instead a debate about the real reasons for the delay in Drax B construction. Perhaps then we could uncover some of the unsavoury aspects of the matter, such as why two non-elected industrial despots—Hawkins of the CEGB and Mr. Weinstock—are putting the power station workers' jobs in jeopardy in Newcastle and other areas, as well as the way in which the Department of Industry operates. We should be better informed than we have been this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. We might then see this elected Government carrying out decisions and actually announcing the construction of Drax B.

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and that of many of my hon. Friends about Drax B, but I cannot rearrange the business to suit him. He must look for some other opportunity for elaborating his question.

Will the Leader of the House recognise that there will be considerable disquiet throughout Scotland that the devolution Bill dogs not appear in the business of the House for next week? Can he give some indication when the Bill will come before the House, and how his so-called all-party talks are going?

The hon. Gentleman has previously mentioned the matter referred to in the last part of his question. We are still continuing talks with all parties. I am fully prepared to have further talks with his party on the subject if he wishes, as I indicated to him and to others when we met on previous occasions. I cannot yet indicate to the House what is the outcome of those continuing talks, but I make it absolutely clear that the Government's commitment to devolution, both for Scotland and for Wales, remains firm, and that we shall carry it into effect.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the disquiet that is said to be expressed in Scotland will be exceeded only by the calm with which an announcement that there will be no devolution Bill next week will be greeted in Wales? Does he not accept yet, especially after the announcement that there will be no further building on the Assembly, that the only devolutionary move that the overwhelming majority of the people of Wales want is to go ahead immediately, during this summer, with a referendum that will conclude the question once and for all?

As I have often told my hon. Friend and the House, we do not think that it would be sensible or fair to have a referendum before the passage of a Bill, because we do not believe that the referendum would take place on a clear issue. As for the rest of what my hon. Friend says, I must repeat to him what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). Their combined eloquence has often been unloosed on the House on this matter, and on each occasion the House has voted for devolution for Wales as well as for Scotland. I believe that those opinions of the House must be respected, along with the others.

Since the Government have decided to reject the idea that I put to the Prime Minister about a vote before the Second Reading of a direct elections Bill, can the Lord President now say how long a delay there will be after Monday before the Bill is published? Secondly, as there is to be a free vote at some moment during the passage of the Bill about a system of election, should the Government's proposition be rejected—as is possible on a free vote—will they give a firm undertaking to introduce into that Bill the system of election that the House chooses?

The House of Commons will decide the method of election that is to be proceeded with. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, of course. It is the House of Commons that must decide it, all the more because it has been emphasised on all sides that there is to be a free vote. I regret I cannot say anything further on the question of timing.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that hon. Members from the Greater Manchester area are deeply concerned about Drax B, sharing a concern with hon. Members from the North-East and from the mining constituencies? There is a sense of urgency. I think that everyone in the House appreciates Mr. Speaker's difficulty about calling people.

Would my right hon. Friend consider the fact that in the Trafford Park area, where we have generating plant, the decline in the work force has been from 19,000 to 6,000? Is he aware of the low morale in that area, and that an early debate on energy would be welcomed by hon. Members from all parts of this side of the House? Could my right hon. Friend please see to that?

I recognise the widespread interest and concern shown by many of my hon. Friends who have already put the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and to me. I cannot promise a time for a debate but, obviously, when the announcement to which my right hon. Friend referred today is made, we shall have to consider the matter then.

Before we reach the point of decision outlined recently by my hon. Friend, is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that we face a ridiculous situation, because the Government published a White Paper asking for the guidance of the House before they publish their Bill? What they will have received is the individual opinions of about 50 Members, and not the collective opinions of 600. Is that satisfactory?

What we shall have received will be the opinions of those who have entered into the debate. We shall also have received the views expressed by the leaders of various parties. We can take into account the clear, decisive views that they have presented to the House.

In his firm commitment to devolution this afternoon, and in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Mr. Hughes), my right hon. Friend used the word "measures", with a distinct "s" at the end of the word. Would he not agree that that is an indication that separate measures are to be introduced, with a good chance that the measure for Scotland will appear first?

I did not use the word "measures", as far as I can recall. If that is how Hansard reports me, so be it, but my hon. Friend should not read any sinister implication into that. I repeat that the Government's commitment to carry through a devolution measure for Wales is as firm as our commitment to carry through a devolution measure for Scotland. We regard those two pledges, which we have given quite clearly to both countries and to the country at large, as pledges to which the Government are committed. None of the reports that appeared in the papers today should cast any doubts on the Government's determination to carry those pledges into action.

Would the right hon. Gentleman now clarify once and for all what is the extraordinary mystery about Monday? Why is it so difficult to have a free vote, so that the Government will know which system Members want? The right hon. Gentleman seeks to make capital out of the fact that he does not think that he knows what the Opposition Front Bench want. Even if he does not have a free vote on Monday, which he seems to dislike, he will know exactly the views that I hold when I wind up this debate. I shall tell him exactly what I believe. Why are other Members and I denied the right to express our views in a vote? I have a chance to speak, but a vast number of Members do not have that chance. Why does the right hon. Gentleman deny them their rights? I do not understand.

I would listen to what the right hon. Gentleman had to say with great interest even if he had not given this trailer for what is to come. But it is a perfectly reasonable proposition that I am advancing. The official Opposition are asking that we should select one aspect of the Bill and put down motions on that, but there are other matters involved as well. Further, if the right hon. Gentleman and others had been present when we discussed some of these matters in the Adjournment debate, they would have seen that representations were made in a different sense on the matter, and I have had to take those representations into account, too.

Would the Lord President care to expand on the reply that he gave to the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) and to his hon. Friends on the subject of devolution, and say whether or not we are to have two separate Bills? Does he not also agree that two separate Bills would enable the House to declare its opinion more clearly?

I have already given a clear answer. I will give it again to the hon. Gentleman, but I must add to it in order to ensure that there is no misrepresentation. No decision whatsoever has been made about any separation of the Bills, but I must repeat that, whatever decision might be made on that in the future, the Government's commitment to Wales on devolution stands. We are determined to carry that out, as we are determined to carry out the devolution pledge for Scotland.

What steps will the Lord President undertake to take to ascertain the views of those 95 per cent. of Members who will be unable to participate in the two-day debate?

It is perfectly normal procedure for the House to have a general debate on which it does not reach a final conclusion on particular matters. What has been suggested—I am surprised that it has caused so much commotion—is that we should select one aspect of the—

The Opposition Chief Whip, quite innocently, wants a take-note motion in order to be able to table an amendment to it. I am sure that he would not table the amendment in his own name. What he seeks to do—not in his own name, although he is most concerned about the matter—is to ensure that others will be able to table an amendment on one specific issue in the Bill. I suggest that it is much more normal to proceed with the whole Bill and then have amendments when the Bill is going through.

Order. Seven hon. Members are standing, and they have been standing at each opportunity. I hope that they will be brief. If they are I shall call them all.

Reverting to Monday's business, what the House would like is an opportunity to vote on the question whether we retain the first-past-the-post system or adopt some form of proportional representation. That is very simple. Why cannot the right hon. Gentleman let the House take that decision?

The two-day debate concerns not only the question of the form of election but much wider issues also, and the debate is on those wider issues, too. The House will have the opportunity eventually to decide which form of election is preferred.

Will the Lord President tell the House when we are to have the long-overdue debate on immigration, bearing in mind, in particular, the recent bulletin by the Runnymede Trust which shows that there has been a major change of policy in dealing with the applications both of wives and of children in Dacca and Islamabad and also in Delhi?

I make no comment on the specific questions raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I know that he and other hon. Members have urged that there should be a debate on this subject at some time, and I agree with that. It could take place on a Supply Day, but I appreciate that the House wishes to have a debate in some form.

Can the Lord President—I am taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—arrange a debate on the Drax B business next week so that the Secretary of State for Energy may confirm that it was not his intention to publish the correspondence with the CEGB? Can he also confirm that we shall have a better debate because the correspondence has been published, and explain how he reconciles those two positions?

I cannot promise a debate on the subject next week. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Energy has shown fully this afternoon that he is quite capable of looking after himself.

As the court hearing takes place in New York next week on landing rights for Concorde, and as the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Trade have all confirmed that refusal to allow the aeroplane to land in New York would be a breach of a treaty existing between the United States Government and Her Majesty's Government, will the Leader of the House give an assurance that one of those right hon. Gentlemen will come to the House at the earliest opportunity after the court hearing and make a statement?

I cannot say whether there will be a statement in those circumstances but, as the hon. Member knows, representations have been made to the United States on this subject.

How long has it been a crime to table an amendment in the House? Does not the Leader of the House appreciate that all he will get from the two-day debate is a representative sample of what a few hon. Members think and, much as we respect Mr. Speaker's wisdom in selecting appropriate amendments, it cannot possibly mean anything.

I have never suggested that it was a crime to table an amendment or for an amendment to be called. I believe that what was proposed is a convenient way of proceeding. I repeat that what hon. Gentlemen are seeking to insist is that Monday's debate should be turned into a debate on one single aspect of the matter, and I do not believe that that was the wish of other hon. Members.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us on this side would strongly support the request made by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Kelley) for an earlier debate on energy matters, particularly on the future of nuclear energy? Will he give this matter considerable priority?