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Business Of The House

Volume 931: debated on Thursday 12 May 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 16TH MAY—Until 7 o'clock, consideration of Private Members' motions. Afterwards, Second Reading of the Post Office Bill.

Motions relating to Police (Discipline) and (Complaints) Amendment Regulations.

TUESDAY 17TH MAY—Second Reading of the Local Authorities (Restoration of Works Powers) Bill and of the Control of Office Development Bill.

Motion on R/77 EEC Documents Nos. 75, 477–479 on energy policy.

WEDNESDAY 18TH MAY—Supply [18th Allotted Day]: a debate on the Belgrade meeting on the Helsinki Final Act.

Motion on R/76 EEC Documents Nos. 90 and 540 on sulphur in fuel oil.

THURSDAY 19TH MAY—Supply [19thAllotted Day]: a debate on the Royal Navy.

Remaining stages of the Rent (Agriculture) Amendment Bill.

FRIDAY 20TH MAY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 23RD MAY—Debate on the Report of the Annan Committee on The Future of Broadcasting, Command No. 6753.

If next week's business is completed as announced and if nothing unexpected arises, it will be proposed that the Adjournment for the Spring Holiday should be from Friday 27th May to Monday 13th June.

May I put two questions to the Leader of the House? First, the day on which it is proposed that we should rise is allocated to Private Members' motions, which will mean that we shall not have the customary day for Adjournment debates. Would it be possible to put down Private Members' motions on a day after we return so that we may have the customary day for Adjournment debates?

Secondly, will the direct elections Bill be published next week?

On the right hon. Lady's first point, a resolution of the House at the beginning of the Session allocated Friday 27th May for consideration of Private Members' motions and a further resolution would be required to change that. I think that we should stand by the existing arrangements, but if it is desired to have discussions through the usual channels for the restoration of Private Members' time thereby lost, we shall be prepared to consider that.

On the second matter, I am sorry that I cannot gratify the right hon. Lady's wish to have the Bill next week.

Is it not right that the House should have the opportunity to reach a decision on a fundamental issue of conscience that is not a party issue? Therefore, whatever the right hon. Gentleman's own views, will he consider looking again at the need for Government time in Committee and on the Floor of the House for the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, because the original Act was passed on the basis of Government time?

There are several considerations that I should put to the hon. Gentleman and the House that I have also put to the many deputations that have come from various parts of the House to make representations on this Bill. We are standing by the normal procedures of the House and it would he wrong to change them.

Has my right hon. Friend seen Early-Day Motion No. 332 on Government nepotism that I tabled last night? Does he recognise that, despite what the Prime Minister said a few minutes ago, there is widespread disquiet on this side of the House and, no doubt, among our supporters in the country and that this matter must be urgently debated on the Floor of the House or within the Parliamentary Labour Party?

[ That this House deplores the growing use of patronage by Government Ministers; condemns the appointment by the Prime Minister of his son-in-law as Her Majesty's Ambassador in Washington; and calls upon the entire Labour Movement to censure the Prime Minister for this indefensible action.]

Whether a matter crops up elsewhere is not immediately a question for me. I understand that there is interest in this subject, though the Prime Minister replied to questions about it earlier. I have read my hon. Friend's motion and I see that he has his customary massive support for it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is some weeks since the Secretary of State for the Environment promised us the White Paper on inner city problems? Does the right hon. Gentleman expect it to be published next week?

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any assurance about next week. I shall try to indicate when it will be published, and if I find that it is being brought forward earlier, I shall inform the right hon. Gentleman.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, notwithstanding his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), there is massive worry and consternation throughout the Parliamentary Labour Party, even if this is not in evidence on my hon. Friend's Early-Day Motion, which, I understand, was not taken round for hon. Members to sign? Will my right hon. Friend arrange an urgent debate to consider the real problem in this matter—namely, patronage—so that we can get some, if not all, of it removed and subject such appointments to scrutiny by Back Bench Members in order that we may approve or endorse such appointments? Until we do that, we shall not be making any progress on behalf of our movement.

That is a very much wider question and does not arise necessarily from the particular appointment to which the Early-Day Motion refers. As for discussion of the wider question, no doubt it will be raised in the PLP as was suggested earlier, and it is a perfectly proper subject for hon. Members to select on the various occasions when private Members can choose the business to be discussed in the House.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the information that I have just received from a telephone call, that the Government intend to put down a Money Resolution tomorrow on the Homeless Persons Bill, is correct? Why should an outside source know before hon. Members of this House what is on their agenda tomorrow? Is it correct that a matter of this kind should be brought on at the last moment, because hon. Members who may wish to be here and speak on an important matter of this kind will not have the opportunity to do so?

I do not know the details of the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I have had no outside telephone call about the matter, but I shall make inquiries and communicate with the hon. Gentleman this afternoon.

Has my right hon. Friend given any consideration to arranging a debate on the important statements which the Secretary of State for the Environment has made in recent weeks on the new towns and inner city areas? Both these issues are in many ways connected, and many of us regard it as vital that the House should have an opportunity of discussing them in full.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that this is one of the questions on which time should be made available. I cannot promise that it will happen in the next week or so but I shall keep in mind the representations of my hon. Friend as well as those of others.

Has the Lord President seen Early-Day Motion No. 325, in my name and the names of several other hon. Members, praying for the Statutory Instrument on the fishing industry to be annulled?

[That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Haddock (Restrictions on Landing) Order 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 781), dated 2nd May 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th May, be annulled.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this has caused considerable concern in the fishing industry since the regulation was brought into effect on Monday? Will he promise time for an early debate?

Approaches have been made about the possibility of finding means for a debate. This motion appeared on the Order Paper on the 10th of the month and praying time expires on the 30th. We shall look at the possibility to see whether there is a chance of a debate.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a serious situation has arisen today as a result of the decision of the Law Lords about the battered wives' house in Hounslow? The Law Lords have now decided that it is overcrowded and as a consequence hundreds of housewives with their children will be thrown on to the streets unless we take action quickly and immediately. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the House to debate this very important matter next week, and will he discuss it with the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Minister for Housing and Construction?

I shall discuss the matter with my right hon. and hon. Friends, as my hon. Friend has urged that I should do. But what action should be taken following a decision in another place, if a decision has been taken, is another question. I cannot make any promise about that.

Will the Lord President find time next week for a debate on a subject in which he takes the keenest interest; namely, whether this country shall become a Socialist republic?

That matter has been successfully disposed of on a number of occasions. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman that he studies the report of the newspaper correspondent who was there—The Times corespondent. So sensational were my utterances that he reported not a single word the next morning.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the report of the Select Committee on the Nationalised Industries concerning the role of British Railways in public transport was reported this morning and that there were no fewer than 68 Press correspondents in attendance? In view of this tremendous public interest, will he make sure that within the next week or so we have a chance of debating the report in full?

I understand the importance of the subject, but I cannot promise a debate in the next week or two. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that this is obviously a strong candidate for a debate.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that five months have elapsed since Sir Robert Megarry, the Vice-Chancellor, drew the attention of the Attorney-General to the wrongs done by the Government to the Banaban people? We have long been awaiting a statement. Will he assure us that such a statement will be made before the House rises for the recess?

I know of the interest of the hon. Gentleman and others in this subject. I cannot promise a further statement before the recess but I shall see what the possibilities are.

Will my right hon. Friend say whether next week's debate on energy policy will cover President Carter's recent statements on nuclear development and their implications for British nuclear policy?

The debate next week is considerably narrower than that because it covers EEC documents. However, I am sure that some comments on this wider question would be in order. I also agree, as I have indicated to the House before, that there ought to be a wider debate on energy at a fairly early date soon after the recess.

May I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi)? Of course I understand that the right hon. Gentleman cannot be expected to know everything. Having once had his job I would be the last person to suggest that he could. But since he does not know, and since it is an urgent matter, will he undertake that if this Money Resolution on the Homeless Persons Bill is to be put down, he will adjourn the debate tomorrow so that the opportunity can be given to debate it properly at a later stage?

I gather that the motion has already been put down. I promised that I would look into this matter and see what action should be taken. That is the proper way for me to proceed. I shall also see whether there have been any discussions among the parties. I do not know whether there have been such discussions. However, I promised that I would look into the matter and that is what I shall do.

May I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further? I understand that there have not been any discussions. Surely it is reasonable to ask the right hon. Gentleman, as there is a widespread demand in the House that this should be debated at a proper time and not on a Friday, that such an opportunity should be given. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman needs much knowledge of the subject to admit that this is a reasonable proposition and one to which he should accede.

The matter has only just been brought to my attention by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi). I have promised that I shall look at this, and I shall also take into account the representations that the right hon. Gentleman has put to me.

With regard to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens), will my right hon. Friend recognise that 2,250,000 people have been left in some uncertainty and ambiguity arising from his right hon. Friend's statement and that it would be a great service to those people if an early debate were arranged?

I fully appreciate that this is a strong candidate for a debate. I hope that we shall be able to arrange it fairly soon, but I cannot promise it before the recess.

Since the subject of the nationalisation of the banks and insurance companies has again reared its head, will the Lord President consider an early debate in view of the obvious discrepancy between the policy of his party and the policy of the Government?

Eager though we are to supply time for debates, we cannot have debates on every subject that rears its head, but I understand what the hon. Gentleman is up to.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether there will be a statement next week with regard to the present industrial dispute that is going on? Can he indicate what are the terms and conditions of the work force at present down below in the House under which trade union agreements and so on they are operating and what is the position?

Will he also ask the Opposition whether they will arrange for a debate on both banking and insurance and the Socialist republic? There are many hon. Members on this side who would be only too willing to explain to the Opposition precisely what our views are on these matters.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has indicated to the House generally how he would join in such a debate, and I understand that. It will be necessary to make a statement to the House next week on the first matter that my hon. Friend raised. In the course of making such a statement we shall be referring to some subjects to which my hon. Friend referred in his question today and on previous occasions, which are extremely important matters. I am not underrating them in any sense whatever. What I have to do in the interests of the whole House, and the interests of all the servants of the House, is to try to secure a settlement to this dispute and then see how we can proceed.

In view of the Prime Minister's characteristically evasive and less than honest replies, will the Lord President arrange to make a statement next week on what exactly he did say about wishing for the advent of a Socialist republic in Britain? Will the Lord President include in that statement the truth behind the fact that he sent me a Parliamentary Answer referring me to a newspaper which did not carry any report of the meeting? He would have done much better to refer to the account in the Nottingham Evening Post, which I understand, did have a reporter at the meeting.

I am tempted to reply to the hon. Member's characteristically offensive question in his own manner, but I shall not do so. I shall give him the answer clearly. He put down Questions to me about the speech that I had made in Kirkby and he asked for reports of what I had said. There is no report in existence—no textual report of what I said. What I referred him to was the reporter who was there, the reporter of The Times—and The Times reporter thought that it was so sensational that he got on to his newspaper at once and said nothing about it. If the Opposition cannot think of any better mare's nests than this one to pursue, they are hard up.

Since we gather that our right hon. and admirable Friend the Prime Minister, who is always blunt and honest, unlike some of those chaps on the Benches below the Gangway opposite, is meeting some writers this evening, may we have a statement of the Government's intentions about public lending right, which I think has surfaced again in another place?

In the last Session the Government sought to introduce the Public Lending Right Bill. We were in full support of the Bill. That Bill or a Bill of similar character, although it does not deal with the important money aspects of the matter, has passed through another place. Representations are being made to the Prime Minister by the Writers Guild, a body which has fought consistently to get this measure on to the statute book, and my right hon. Friend will hear those representations. I should have thought that the next best likelihood of the Bill proceeding is in the next Session of Parliament, but all these representations can assist.

Since, perhaps understandably, the right hon. Gentleman is reluctant to come clean on his objective of a Socialist republic, would he at least come clean on the Bill to introduce European direct elections, bearing in mind that the delay already incurred is a total disgrace and a let-down of this House? If he cannot promise the Bill next week, will he guarantee to introduce it before the recess?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the guarantee he seeks. I understand the Government's commitments in this matter and the questions on the matter which have been put to me by the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition and others, but I have nothing further to add to that now.

When my right hon. Friend is considering the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) that we should have a debate on battered wives, will he take into account the Select Committee's Report on this subject, which was published 18 months ago and has not yet been debated? Will he certainly see that this subject gets much higher priority than any nonsense about direct elections, because these women are suffering and being harassed—first of all by their husbands and now by the law?

This is obviously a question which deserves debate in the House. There are other opportunities, apart from the time that the Government provide, for discussion of these matters. However, I shall take note of my hon. Friend's representations. I certainly appreciate the importance of the subject, particularly in view of the reference made today to the decision elsewhere.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of a very curious and rather un-British proposal, that all citizens who want passports will in due course have to have a European Community passport? Can he assure us that before there is any commitment to this there will have to be an affirmative decision of this House and that it will not be done by the Royal Prerogative, without the consent of this House?

The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter before and of course I appreciate the interest in it. I would want the House to discuss this matter before the Government are finally committed. I think that that is in line with the undertaking that I gave before, and I give it again now.

Order. I am afraid that I shall be able to call only three more hon. Members on each side, because we have other business in front of us.

Will a statement be made of the Government's intentions regarding the sale of their holding in BP, and may we have a debate on the matter before any action is taken?

This matter has been discussed and referred to in the House before. I cannot say that there will be a fresh statement, but I will consult the Chancellor and see what the situation is.

I hope that I did not hear aright a moment ago. Blasphemy in this place is out of order.

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Home Secretary will himself be replying to next week's debate on the police? In view of the serious situation in the police service at the moment, does he accept that it would be little short of an insult to the police if the Home Secretary were to go off to Guernsey and not reply to the debate himself?

I could not accept any suggestion about insults to the House or the police in any question of who would reply for the Government. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been some difficulty about the Home Secretary being able to be here on Monday, but the Government will certainly put the case and we are providing time for a debate at a time that we thought suitable for the House as a whole.

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the statement made by the Prime Minister about Prime Minister's Questions, a matter of great concern to all hon. Members? When the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was Prime Minister, one required a constitutional lawyer when one went into the Table Office to agree a form of words in order to get a Question down. At least the Prime Minister has now indicated his concern. Would it not, therefore, be possible for the Leader of the House to arrange for a debate so that all hon. Members can participate in a discussion of this vital question—our ability to question the Prime Minister of this country?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is asking for a debate on this report. If so, we shall look at that, although. I cannot promise it now. I should have thought that the best way to proceed is as the Prime Minister indicated—on the basis of the acceptance of the recommendations, in the main, that he has made, and see how that works. If we find after a period that it does not work, we can see what alterations need to be made. However, as my hon. Friend knows and as I have known for a long time, there has never been an entirely satisfactory solution of this problem. Let us see whether we can solve it in practice over the next few months, rather than by having a debate on the theory of the matter.

Bearing in mind that the annual conference of the Scottish National Party will be held at the end of this month, does the right hon. Gentleman intend to have the devolution Bill Mark II out and debated before then, or will it simply be published on the eve of the SNP conference? In any case, as Leader of the House, how does he hope to keep his new proposals going through this Chamber?

I am not saying whether a statement should be made before the Scottish National Party conference or any other conference, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be perfectly capable of conveying to his associates there that the only party, the only kind of Government, who can conceivably carry through a proper system of devolution in the United Kingdom is a Labour Government. I am sure that that information will be rapturously received when the hon. Gentleman makes his speech.

As there are now only four weeks until the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference, for two weeks of which we shall be in recess, may we have a firm assurance from my right hon. Friend that there will be either a statement or a debate about the conference before the House goes into recess?

I cannot give a promise that there will be a debate on the matter before the recess, but there are, of course, other opportunities in which the questions can be raised. However, I recognise the importance of having a discussion in the House on the matter in some form. There have been many exchanges at Question Time and on other occasions.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members appointed to the Committee to consider the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill will want to know whether the Money Resolution is to be debated tomorrow? May we have an assurance that each individual Member will be told before the House rises tonight whether there is to be a debate or not?

I have promised that I shall look at all the circumstances of the matter to see what is the best way to deal with it. That is what I stand by.

Later

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect, I hope that you will not take anything that I propose to say in any way as criticism of yourself. It is a request for information.

You may have been aware, Mr. Speaker, that from the very first lion. Member to stand to try to catch your eye to ask a question of the Lord President I was among those on the Labour Benches who were bobbing up and down like yo-yos trying to gain your attention so as to ask a question. The question that I wanted to ask concerned unemployment on Merseyside.

You were able, Mr. Speaker, to call other hon. Members on both sides of the House. Some of them had begun the ritual at the same time as myself, but many of them came in much later. You have often urged, Mr. Speaker, that hon. Members should follow the practice of trying to catch your eye. That is what I was trying to do. I assumed that because I had been able to ask a question of the Prime Minister I was excluded from those who could ask a question of the Lord President, but hon. Members were called who had asked more questions than I was able to ask. I make no criticism I am merely asking for information.

If at some stage I used the name of our God, it was not in blasphemy but merely a request for help from a higher authority. We happen, Mr. Speaker, to be Methodists, but I am rather a rougher one than yourself. My call to God was not a blasphemy it was an appeal to the higher authority. However, it did not get an answer. If it did, it was "No".

I should like an assurance, Mr. Speaker, that you are not trying to stop me and that some rule was being applied.

I am deeply grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) has raised this matter. The hon. Gentleman knows that one's prayers are not always answered as one expects.

The House should bear in mind that the worst part of my job as Speaker is when I have to terminate questions and discussions when I know that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber are bursting with indignation because they have not been called. If I allowed discussion to continue until everybody had been answered, matters would get completely out of hand. There must be—there always has been—some discipline in this place. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was nothing personal in my decision. I shall do my best next time to ensure that his prayers are answered.