House Of Commons
Thursday 16th November 1978
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Oral Answers To Questions
Oral Answers To Questions
I appeal again for brevity in supplementary questions and ministerial replies.
Agriculture, Fisheries And Food
National Farmers' Union
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next meet the president of the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he plans next to meet representatives of the National Farmers' Union.
I frequently meet representatives of the National Farmers' Union, but at present I have no plans for a meeting.
When the Minister next meets the president of the National Farmers' Union, will he raise the important question of increasing the level of United Kingdom food production, as that is one vital way of reducing Britain's financial exposure to the EEC? We must import less.Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is lamentable that three years after the publication of the document "Food from Our Own Resources" his Government have failed, with the exception of climatic accident, to increase the level of food production in the United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that an increase in production of food in these islands is essential. I like his little exception—t drought for 500 years following the worst drought for about 100 years. I therefore agree that those two years made somewhat of a difference in food production. But I am satisfied at present that agricultural production is going as it should be going, and I think that the figures will bear me out when they are published.
When the Minister does meet the members of the National Farmers' Union, will he tell them whether the Government wholeheartedly accept the motion passed at the Labour Party conference calling for the nationalisation of land? Will he further assure them that owner-occupiers were not exempt from that motion, as was popularly believed?
I am, of course, not responsible for every motion passed by the farmworkers' union. As to the public ownership of land, I am encouraged by the thought that 3 million acres of agricultural land are already publicly owned and have been for some time.The argument is about the exact proportion in which agricultural land should be publicly owned, privately owned or co-operatively owned. What we all have to do is to see that new farmers can come into this very important industry and that they are assisted so to do. That may be done by any of those three ways. I await the report of the Northfield committee, which I think may give a good deal of information on this subject.
Will my right hon. Friend seek an early meeting with the President of the National Farmers' Union, so that he can announce his conclusions on the inter-departmental review on the export of live animals for slaughter? Is he aware that it is now eight months since the document was published and that the whole industry, whatever side of the argument it happens to be on, would welcome a conclusion? Will he also note that the majority of Members would applaud him if he announced an end to this vile trade?
I have already had the advantage of discussions with the president of the National Farmers' Union on this subject. Indeed, we have discussed it at various times in this House. I take the view that the basic question still to be resolved is what is to happen as regards the EEC. I have made that point in the House. One cannot consider the question of the transport of live animals in the United Kingdom alone. We have to do it in an EEC context. But that does not mean that my resolve on that matter is any the less, and it does not mean that I intend to delay much longer over it.
When the Minister does meet the president of the National Farmers' Union, will he discuss with him the question of marginal land, where for a small investment by the Government a great deal more production could be obtained?
I am very conscious of the problem. The hon. Gentleman will probably understand that as with the presidents of all the farmers' unions—and here I include the Farmers' Union of Wales—we are in a difficulty of definition. What we do not want is to lose, by widening the definition so that we receive assistance for marginal land, some of the other advantages that hill farming receives. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the problem needs urgent study, and that is exactly what is going on at the moment.
Will my right hon. Friend the Minister say when he intends to make his announcement about the continued supply of farm-bottled or green-top milk, which is a matter of concern to many farmers in my constituency, elsewhere in West Yorkshire and other parts of the country?
I hope to make an announcement on that matter in the near future, and I shall make it to this House when the time comes.
First, is the right hon. Gentleman aware how sorry we all were about the accident he sustained recently? I hope that he is better, having been rather badly hurt. I do not want to joke about the matter, but it goes to prove what a dangerous place Whitehall can be. I hope that he will be more careful in the future.When the right hon. Gentleman does meet the president of the National Farmers' Union, will he be able to assure him about when the successor to "Food from Our Own Resources" is likely to make an appearance? It has been long delayed, and rumours are to be heard on every side now that the successor document will be a slender one.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and I promise him that I shall never cross the road in Brussels. The successor to "Food from Our Own Resources"—I nearly said "Son of Food from Our Own Resources", but that might cause some comment—will certainly not be a slim volume. I hope that it is an extremely important and full document. It is virtually finished, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it was decided at the last Heads of Government meeting that the Commission should be asked for a report on the CAP and I felt it prudent to hold up the successor to "Food from Our Own Resources" until I had seen what the Commission had to say. But it will not, I hope, be very long.
Country Landowners' Association
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has to meet the president of the Country Landowners' Association.
My right hon. Friend the Minister hopes to meet the president of the Country Landowners' Association on 5th December.
When the Minister meets Mr. Paul, will he tell him whether he will be advising his friends in the Labour Party to press ahead with their proposals for the nationalisation of agricultural land on the ground of farming efficiency? If so, will he tell the House why he believes that nationalisation of farm land will make agriculture more efficient?
My right hon. Friend has already pointed out that about 3 million acres of farmland are already publicly owned. But the hon. Gentleman must understand that there has been no change in the Government's policy in relation to the public ownership of agricultural land.
Was it not clear from the Labour Party conference that the hon. Gentleman himself is extremely sympathetic towards the nationalisation of agricultural land?
What was clear from the speech I made at the Labour Party conference was that I am very aware of the deep concern throughout the agricultural community in this country about the growing acquisition of agricultural land by financial institutions and, furthermore, about the displacement of family farmers by direct farming by these financial institutions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government ought to be pursuing a policy to swell the ranks of the Country Landowners' Association so that every person in this land would qualify for membership?
My hon. Friend has a point to the extent that it is the Government's policy to encourage owner occupation and to encourage people to buy a house with a garden. But that is very different from the serious problem which exists in relation to agriculture and the acquisition of land by these big institutions.
Will the hon. Gentleman have a word with the president of the CLA about sugar beet? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in my constituency thousands of tons of one of the best sugar beet crops we have ever had are now lying around rotting, unable to be processed, because of industrial action at the largest sugar beet factory in this country—namely, that at Bury St. Edmunds? Will he discuss this situation as a matter of urgency and tell the farmers what he intends to do to compensate them for the losses which they have had no part in creating?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a matter for concern that beet should be lost in this way, but he will be the first to acknowledge that these negotiations must take place between the British Sugar Corporation and the unions representing the men involved.
Is the Minister aware that the price of agricultural land has risen by 420 per cent. during the past eight years. Will he inquire of the CLA what effect this has had on the cost of producing food in Britain?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I believe most strongly that this sharp escalation in the price of agricultural land, while it may be to the benefit of land speculators and some landowners, is of no benefit whatever to the working farmer.
When this meeting with the president of the Country Landowners' Association takes place, will the Government be very careful to answer the crucial question as to whether they agree with the view, expressed at the Labour Party conference, that agriculture industry would be more efficient if the land was nationalised?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the resolution which was passed at the Labour Party conference and which has already aroused comment this afternoon. The position is that Government policy has not changed in relation to the public ownership of land or the rating of agricultural land.
We must move more quickly on the rest of the Questions.
Pigmeat (Monetary Compensatory Amounts)
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the current state of negotiations concerning the recalculation of pig-meat monetary compensatory amounts.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the future of the pigmeat industry.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress he has made in renegotiating the system of monetary compensatory amounts for pigmeat.
The United Kingdom breeding herd is now expanding, and this will be helpful to the pigmeat curing and processing industry, which, I recognise, continues to face competitive difficulties. My right hon. Friend is continuing to press for further cuts in monetary compensatory amounts payable on imports, and we are hopeful that the Commission will shortly present its promised review of the coefficients used to calculate mcas on processed pigmeat.
Is the Minister of State aware that he has presided over the partial destruction of our pigmeat industry, which is certainly not in accord with the objectives of "Food from Our Own Resources"? Can he now give a firm date for the calculation of the MCAs to be changed? Will he advise the Prime Minister that if we in this country produced much more food from our own resources—which we can do and which the farmers are prepared to do—we would not be paying such a hefty contribution to the EEC?
I think that the hon. Gentleman, to be fair, recognises that the calculations are now based on 78 per cent. of the basic prices, which compare with the 92 per cent. base used when the issue was first taken up. That represents a cut of about 15 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend has been pressing consistently in Brussels, and we hope that some recommendations will come from the Commission before the end of the year.
I will call first those hon. Members whose Questions are being answered.
Does the Minister accept that unless there is a recalculation of the pigmeat coefficient, or a reduction in the level of the MCAs, we are likely to witness the demise of the processing industry in the short term and pig farming in the long term?
Bacon and ham imports from the EEC total about 54 per cent., of which the Danes contribute 43 per cent. due to the unfair position with MCAs. The percentage of EEC imports has increased from 49 per cent. in 1973 to 54 per cent. in 1977. The Netherlands has had a three-fold increase, which underlines the need for urgency in this matter, which is one for the Community as well as for us.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although we recognise the efforts made by the Minister in Brussels in this regard, it is becoming intolerable that the British taxpayer should pay large sums to finance the demise of the British pigmeat industry and to create redundancy in the pigmeat processing industry?
I think that the tact that the breeding herd is increasing is a tribute to my right hon. Friend's efforts. In the past two years, there has been the change of 15 per cent. in the MCA, there has been the 7·5 per cent. change in the green pound, there was the massive £17 million subsidy given until the European Court intervened—and, of course, we are still pressing.My hon. Friend is correct. As the United Kingdom is the second largest contributor to the Community trough, there is no reason why the snout of the British pig industry should not get a little more elbow room to ensure that we get more MCA changes on the trot.
Will the Minister of State suggest to his right hon. Friend that, encouraged by his success in becoming the toast of the Mourne fishermen, he should proceed, by protecting the Pigs Marketing Board of Ulster from the proposed depredations of the EEC, to become the toast of the pig producers of Northern Ireland?
My right hon. Friend and I have both met the Mourne fishermen in the right hon. Gentleman's area. I am sure that my right hon. Friend takes the right hon. Gentleman's point.
Although I accept that there is a real problem for both the pigmeat industry and workers in the industry, is my right hon. Friend aware that the real trouble is our membership of the Common Market and the common agricultural policy? Is not this one of the aspects to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was referring when he said in his Guildhall speech that the common agricultural policy needed to be changed? Does my right hon. Friend agree that action should be taken, if necessary, to withdraw Britain from the common agricultural policy in order to stop this kind of thing?
I think my hon. Friend will know the answer to his last comment about the future in the Common Market. He knows, of course, of the efforts being made to make the changes necessary to protect our industry. The sector working party report this week mentioned various ways in which the industry itself can help to improve quality and marketing. I think that, combined with that, any changes in the MCA position will help the industry towards greater confidence.
Whilst I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has done his best with a rather bad case, may I ask him now whether the Government really will renew their efforts, particularly with the French and Italian Governments, who want the same thing, to get this MCA system modified and avoid further destruction of the pigmeat processing industry?
I do not agree that the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that my right hon. Friend has done his best with a bad case. This matter will be being pressed very hard in Brussels in the next few weeks.
Common Agricultural Policy
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about proposals to reform the common agricultural policy.
I refer the hon. Member to the reply I gave to him on 20th July 1978.
As reform of the CAP has now been sought for the past 11 years, and as there has been no radical reform at all, as merely an interim observation will the Minister say why it is that the Common Market, when considering the export of more than 14,000 tons of butter to Russia, has only reserved its position on this and not rejected it out of hand? Does not this illustrate the absurdity of the intervention system and also the fact that, if one is outside the Market, not only can one buy cheap food on the world market but there is also a plentiful supply of cheap food from inside the Common Market surpluses?
There could not have been a better or more timely underlining of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet, namely, that the crea tion of surpluses in the most costly way imaginable creates with it the problem of how to dispose of them. The obvious way to do it is, first, to see that there are no surpluses, which means hitting at the common support price; secondly, to increase consumption—and here I hope that perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell some of his colleagues, say in Avon or North Yorkshire, to see that free school milk is available in the schools and, thirdly, to ensure that if we create a surplus we give it at the correct price to the consumers of Europe. There is an awful lot of fuss about a 6½p per lb. subsidy to the United Kingdom on butter but not much of a crisis about 47½ per lb. to the housewives of Russia.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that the capacity of Europe to produce food has by no means been fully tapped at present? Given that, does he think that modifications in the end pricing system will be sufficient? Will it not in fact be necessary for Europe to move towards some form of quotas?
The movement on prices is the first and most important issue. I view a movement on quotas with some degree of suspicion. It seems to me merely to fossilise the existing position. The United Kingdom—as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said a moment ago—can produce more food by itself. We ought to be encouraging that. To have a quota would merely mean our being kept at our present level of food production while the over-production went on in other countries.
May I thank the Minister for that answer and ask him to clarify the position a little more on milk. If we moved over to a quota system, as has been proposed in various quarters, does the Minister agree that that would penalise those traditional dairy areas in this country where milk should rightly and properly be produced, and that that would be extremely unfair?
One of the things that hon. Members, on whichever side of the House they sit, can be justly proud of is the increase in the productivity capacity of our own agriculture. The industry can produce milk—partly climatically, partly technologically—far better than the majority of the Community. The quota system would discourage any advances that could be made, while encouraging the three-cow or four-cow farm in, say, Bavaria or France—and I have seen them —to go on existing when clearly they should not.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is not only anti-Marketeers who are appalled by the wasteful absurdities of the CAP but that newspapers such as The Times and The Guardian, which strongly supported Britain's entry into the Common Market, are now demanding fundamental reforms in the common agricultural policy? Therefore, when the Minister goes to Europe will he make clear to his European colleagues that he is speaking for the British people as a whole.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. I am also grateful to those newspapers which, four or five years after the rest of us, have come to the correct conclusion.
Does the Minister agree that one way of reforming the common agricultural policy and saving millions of pounds of taxpayers' money would be to abolish the intervention system now operating in Europe? Have the Government put forward proposals that will bring stability to the industry and benefit to the consumers alike?
I have said already that the basic point remains the common price level. I do not mind what mechanism one gets. It is only fair to say that, for example, with potatoes we have for years had our own similar sort of intervention system. That does not worry me, although I agree with the hon. Member that the probability is that if one attacks it at the common price level, one will find what is wrong with the intervention system.
Farms (Fluorine Poisoning)
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is yet in a position to give support and advice and take appropriate action where farms are severely affected by fluorine poisoning, as is the case at Warren House farm in the Rother Valley constituency.
My Department is always prepared to help in determining the cause of fluorine poisoning on farms.I shall be writing to my hon. Friend about the recent visit officials of my Department made to Warren House farm.
Does that answer mean that my hon. Friend agrees that the gross unfairness which is within my constituent's present experience is such as to command the helpful action of his Ministry? May we expect that the interest of the Minister and his officials is likely to lead to an early and helpful conclusion of this very nasty problem?
I hope so. My hon. Friend has taken a deep interest in this case, and he will be aware that, in addition to my own officials, the Rotherham council, the Health and Safety Executive and the Yorkshire water authority have all been involved in trying to trace the source of this poisoning. We are anxious to give all the advice we can to help Mr. Ellis recover from his difficulties.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many people in the country will be alarmed to hear that the Government see that it is right to put in the public drinking water a commodity which poisons animals and plants? Will the hon. Gentleman advise his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services that there is a real danger that comes not only from waterborne fluorides but also from airborne fluorides, and that fluoride might very well be harmful not only to those farm animals but eventually to the food products that we eat and drink and which come from those farms?
The hon. Gentleman's statement is really a matter for the Department of Health and Social Security. However, I cannot accept that there is any direct comparison between the level of contamination involved in that farm, probably from an industrial source, and the question of medication through the water supply.
European Community (Horticulture)
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representation and proposals he has made to EEC Agriculture Ministers and the Commission to promote fairer competition between the horticulture industries of member States, and, in particular, to reduce unfair subsidies on the energy costs of Continental growers.
The Government continue to be concerned that fair competition is maintained between the horticulture industries of member States and are prepared to pursue any prima facie case of unfair competition. However, I have no evidence that producers in other Community countries receive any unfair subsidy on fuel prices.
Will the Minister allow me to give him some prima facie evidence? Is it not a fact that Dutch growers have free piping of natural gas to their boiler houses, that the conversion of their boilers to gas has been grant-aided, and that a variety of Dutch growers' co-operatives are themselves grant-aided? If that is not unfair subsidy, I wonder what is. I wonder whether the Minister will take up those points.
No. I cannot accept that. The Government have gone into this matter very closely. There are, in fact, no subsidies in the Community on oil or gas for horticulture. Of course, there are capital grants available for such investment in Holland, as there are in the United Kingdom.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that the protracted process of equalisation of fuel costs for glasshouse growers in the Community has been grossly unfair to British glasshouse growers who have had to pay, and are still paying, about one-third more for their fuel? In these circumstances, cannot the Minister take urgent action to ensure that the process of equalisation is completed much more quickly than is proposed at present?
I am happy to inform my hon. Friend, who takes a deep interest in these matters, that since we last discussed this, equalisation has been reached. Hon. Members have to accept that production and transmission costs of natural gas in Holland are much lower. That is an economic fact of life that we cannot alter.
Will the Minister assure the House that the installation grants available to Dutch growers are on all fours with the installation grants available to us? It is my understanding that British growers do not do so well as Dutch growers on assistance with their capital expenditure.
I am happy to look into that detailed point, but one factor that must not be overlooked is that, whereas in Holland more than 95 per cent. of the units use natural gas, in the United Kingdom the comparable figure is less than 3 per cent. That derives from the fact that our units are much more dispersed. In many parts of this country, it is not an economic proposition to use natural gas.
Council Of Fisheries Ministers
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will attend next a meeting of the Council of Fisheries Ministers of the EEC.
On 23rd and 24th November.
When the right hon. Gentleman addresses the Council, will he be good enough to impress upon it that, unless urgent steps are taken to enable larger British fishing vessels to vary their catch and to increase their quota of allowable catches, we shall face the total loss of livelihood of 1,200 Cornish families associated with the inshore mackerel industry?
I am very conscious of the difficulty of the Cornish inshore fishermen. I am also very conscious of the national need—a need which would perhaps have arisen whether we had remained in the Common Market or whether we had opted out—in the light of our removal from Icelandic waters and the change in the structure of our fishing industry. What I have to do is to make a judgment of Solomon. The difference between Solomon and me on this occasion is that Solomon's judgment was not carried out: I had to do it, and I did so, fully aware that neither side would be wholly satisfied.However, we can protect the Cornish inshore mackerel fisherman—I think that we have done that—and at the same time we can ensure that a large mackerel catch, which ought to be available to the fishing industry as a whole, is preserved.
Is the Minister as fully aware as myself of the sad plight of the deep-sea fishing industry in Hull? Has he been told that an old firm—a first-class firm, with first-class boats and first-class skippers—has just lost £250,000 in fishing for blue whiting off the West coast of Scotland? Is he aware that this makes it even more imperative that our people are allowed to fish off the South-West peninsula—Cornwall and Devon? Will he please fight to his utmost for an exclusive six-mile limit—indeed, an exclusive 12-mile limit—off that coast for our men to fish?
There are many things for which we shall have to fight at that Fisheries Council. I am determined that the British fishing industry in all its various facets—inshore, deep-water and so on—shall be protected. But on one point I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are not a succession of very small fishermen fishing off very small points. We are a fishing nation, and it is essential that our fishing boats shall be able to travel throughout the length and breadth of these islands to carry on their fishing.
Is the Minister aware that the failure to reach a common fisheries policy is having a disastrous effect upon the distant water section of the industry, particularly as the EEC cannot allocate quotas to our vessels because it cannot reach an agreement with the third parties?
It is having a bad effect, not only on our fishermen but, incidentally, on the fishermen of other nations. But it is much better to face up to the difficulties that we are having and to produce a sensible, realistic, honourable fishing policy for this country than merely to give way because of the difficulties that have arisen.
Order. I am sorry that I shall not be able to call everyone with a fishing constituency interest, but I shall try to call spokesmen from the two other parties before I call the Front Bench.
Does not the Minister agree that not even the excellent fishing grounds off south Cornwall can solve the problems of the entire United Kingdom fishing fleet, which is what it is being asked to do now? How can a situation be justified in which a county with 15 per cent. unemployment has suddenly had an industry grow off its coast with a turnover of £40 million a year and has seen hardly one brass farthing of it?
I said that this is a difficulty. But I want to put this to the hon. Gentleman. Is it not just as bad to have a fishing resource that is available to the whole nation under-fished as it is to have it over-fished? Of that I am certain. I agree that mackerel will not solve the whole fishing policy of our country. It was never intended to do so. But it can be, and has been, an enormous help. About £15 million of exports have come as a result of our expanding the mackerel fisheries.
As the talks between Norway and the EEC have now broken down, will the Minister at his meeting discuss with his fellow Ministers the urgent need to go ahead and have unilateral discussions with the Norwegians, and then tell the EEC what arrangements he has made? Does he not agree that that would be a far more sensible way of undertaking these negotiations, as it is obvious that the EEC does not have a decent fisheries policy and never will have?
None the less, I hope that the negotiations which have broken down between the EEC and Norway will be resumed. Many of our fishermen fish off Norway. But I am also bound to agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that I have always found my discussions with my Norwegian opposite numbers to be extremely helpful and constructive.
Has the Minister been made aware that in the past two weeks there has been a growing feeling in the fishing industry that he is about to settle the common fisheries policy on unfavourable terms? Is he aware that, since the reply that the Minister of State gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) last week, the Government's negotiating position has not changed? Will he explain why, within the past few weeks, he has backtracked on his previous intention to reduce the mesh size for nephrops to 70mm?
As to the bulk of the hon. Gentleman's question, our position remains absolutely clear and everyone is totally aware of it. I am sorry that his right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) is not here at present. He told me that he would be going early. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, I have to say that his right hon. Friend's printed basis for a settlement seems to give away most of the things for which we are fighting. I take a very much stronger view.I have by no means backtracked on the question of nephrops. The higher mesh is vitally needed, but I thought that it would help the French if they had rather more time—but not a great deal—in which to make the necessary change. The change was made in full consultation with the British fishing industry.
Council Of Agriculture Ministers
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next attend a meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers of the EEC.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects next to meet his Common Market counterparts.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when next he expects to meet EEC leaders; and if he will make a statement.
The next meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers will be on 20th November.
Having told the House why he thinks that other people's schemes for the reduction of structural surpluses will not work, will the Minister now tell the House what scheme Her Majesty's Government are to propose at the forthcoming meeting? Will he bear in mind that the apparently simple device of merely reducing price very often has the opposite result of increasing production?
Withdraw from the EEC.
If the hon. Gentleman will think about his remarks, I do not believe that he will agree with them. The effect of cutting the common price is to stop people from producing so much, unless there is room for considerable technological expansion. As far as I can see, there is only one country in the European Community which could do that in the dairy sector, and that is the United Kingdom. Our policy will, therefore, be to ensure that there is a freeze on common prices, particularly of products in structural surplus.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the other Common Market ministers that many of us think that the Prime Minister's speech earlier this week, criticising the common agricultural policy, was the best speech he has ever made as Prime Minister? Will my right hon. Friend ask the Common Market fanatics why, despite the fact that the world price of grain has been falling steadily over the past 18 months or so, the Common Market still keeps its wheat price at £40 per tonne more than the world price, instead of passing on the benefit by, for example, reducing the price of bread for housewives and their families?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may have heard the congratulations on his speech, which was important because it laid down absolutely the basic problem facing the European Community with regard to the common agricultural policy. The creation of expensive surpluses means that all the consumers in Europe are paying far too much and are then in the position of wondering how on earth the surpluses can be disposed of.
Does the Minister fully realise the strong negotiating position that he and the rest of his colleagues have in relation to the Common Market? Its members catch our fish, they want and are succeeding in claiming our oil, we buy their manufactured goods, and now we pay the bills. The day must come when my right hon. Friend cannot merely posture at the Dispatch Box but will have to deliver. More and more people in the United Kingdom are waiting for that day.
At the moment I can only limp to the Dispatch Box. But, leaving that aside, I had the feeling that this Government had not done too badly over the past two years. Let us consider what has happened. Since we joined the Community, we have managed to get the lowest common prices in two successive years, and we shall do even better in the price fixing to come. We have maintained a correct posture—since "posture" was the word used by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—on fishing policy and, I would say, also on oil. Therefore, this Government, more than any Government that I know of, has preserved British interests inside the Community.
I appreciate that the Minister uses every meeting of the Agriculture Ministers for his own attempt to become the next leader of the Labour Party, all being well, but does he not agree that the basic difference between his attitude—however reluctant—and that of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) regarding the Prime Minister's speech at the beginning of this week is that the Prime Minister is anxious for this country to remain in the Community? Does not the Minister wholeheartedly support that policy?
The next leader of the Labour Party will be the present leader of the Labour Party.
He is the best Prime Minister we have got.
We in the Labour Party choose our leaders democratically.I have never made any pretence whatsoever about my own views on whether we should or should not have gone into the Market. That has been absolutely clear. But I am certain that this time there is a united Government—united in their attitude to what has to be done. We have stated that clearly and we are doing it.
Has not my right hon. Friend become convinced, as a result of his negotiations in Brussels, that those member countries that have their snouts deep into what his Minister of State earlier called "the EEC trough" will resist and go on resisting any meaningful reform of the CAP unless and until we are prepared to tell them that, if there is no reasonable progress in that direction within a reasonable time, we shall have to rethink the question of our membership?
My hon. Friend knows that we have managed to make significant progress already in the past two years. In my view, we will make even more significant progress in the next year. As he will recall, the basis on which we work is a strategy of four years. I believe that we can do it in that four-year period.
asked the Prime Minister if he will include in his engagements for 16th November a speech on devolution.
I am afraid not, but I refer my hon. Friend to my remarks about devolution at the Lord Mayor of London's banquet on Monday last.
Is not the Prime Minister aware that this week one "No" campaign in particular attacked his policy in a leaflet which claimed that an Assembly would mean less trade and commerce with England, making our unemployment worse? In lieu of a speech, will the Prime Minister use this opportunity to repudiate that ludicrous proposition and the gross misrepresentation of the Scotland Act?
Yes, Sir. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. I do not know who said that, but I have a feeling that we shall listen to a great deal of misrepresentation during the next few months on these issues. But I look to my hon. Friends and others to correct them with their usual vigour.
As the date of the referendum has been announced as 1st March, which is not all that far away, will the Government take an early opportunity to tell us how parallel the referendum will be to the one in Europe? Will there, for example, be a Government statement delivered to every house, and will there be grants to "umbrella" organisations?
No, Sir, statements will not be delivered to every house. I believe that that question was gone into during debates on the Bill, and subsequently, but I have no doubt that these matters will be raised again when the Lord President introduces the forthcoming debate on the orders that have to be laid before the referendums.
Would my right hon. Friend, instead of making a speech on anything today, take time off to read the New Statesman pamphlet dated January 1950, published by the "Keep Left" group, where it states that a free democratic Socialist society could not operate successfully if wage bargaining was left either to the arbitrary decision of a wage stop or to the accident of unco-ordinated sectional bargaining?
Order. It cannot really be claimed that that question is linked with the one on the Order Paper. Open questions are coming later.
I was proposing alternatives to the speech on devolution. I think it is relevant to suggest alternative ways of using the day. Could I further suggest—
Order. That is not fair to other hon. Members. This Question is related to devolution.
Is the Prime Minister aware that about six months ago the 40 per cent. rule for the referendum was introduced with the support of anti-Scottish elements within his party? Why is it that in the orders that have just been published there is, despite Government assurances, no attempt to calculate the total number of the electorate on the register who are alive and do not have two votes at that time? Do the Government intend rigorously to apply the 40 per cent. rule, regardless of the anomalies which exist?
I think that that question will best be dealt with when the debate takes place on the orders providing for the referendum. It is a difficult and important question, but I do not accept strictures from a party that wants to break up the United Kingdom.
Shah Of Iran
asked the Prime Minister if he plans to invite the Shah of Iran to make an official visit to Great Britain.
I have no plans to do so.
In view of the commendable stand taken by the British Government on the issue of human rights in other parts of the world, including the Soviet Union, will the Prime Minister make it perfectly clear that we shall in no way condone the corruption, torture, imprisonment of opponents, shooting-down of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators and other atrocities associated with the present Iranian regime? To this end, will he advise that no royal visit should take place either way at present?
My hon. Friend attacks, as he frequently does, the shortcomings of the present regime. I know no one who denies those shortcomings. It is in the interests of us all that there should be a stable and a democratic Iran.When my hon. Friend attacks the present regime, he should also consider how far the alternatives would be an improvement. Here in this House we should stick to the general principle that I have followed on all occasions, and of which the Shah is clearly aware, namely, that I believe it to be the general desire of the House that he should pursue his proposal for free elections and that Iran should continue to move on towards the path of democracy. To say that is not to condone the shortcomings of the present regime, but it acknowledges the difficulties that would arise under a change.
Although it is extremely easy at present to be destructive about the situation in Iran, will the Prime Minister reaffirm what he has already said—that the opposition in [ran seems to be both disparate and illogical, and that it is an overwhelming Western interest that peace and stability should be restored there by the present Government?
I think that the overwhelming interest of this country and of the West is that there should be a regime in Iran which commands the support of the people. That, as I understand it, is what the Shah is trying to move towards. Whether he can do so is a matter of question. I do not think that we should try to insist—because we should fail if we did—on a regime that is put there basically because it is in Western interests. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman meant that.
Does the Prime Minister understand that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House support his belief that when it comes to civil rights and parliamentary democracy it is not easy to choose between the Shah and any possible alternative? Will he remind his hon. Friends below the Gangway, who seem so sympathetic towards a rather nasty and reactionary priest-hood, that they would be the first to have their hands chopped off if that priesthood came to power?
There are important movements of opinion taking place throughout the Islamic world at present, not only in Iran. We should endeavour to understand those movements, as well as to try to support the movement towards a stable and democratic regime. I do not think that I can add anything further to what I have said.
asked the Prime Minister whether he will list his official engagements for 16th November.
This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, including one with the Vice-Premier of China, Mr. Wang Chen. This evening I hope to attend a dinner given by President Eanes of Portugal in honour of Her Majesty The Queen.
Will the Prime Minister make his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food one of those whom he consults in the remaining part of the day? Will he assure him that he has set no Christmas deadline for the settling of the EEC fisheries dispute? Indeed, will he take the opportunity to refute some of the speculation in the fishing press that he has agreed with Chancellor Schmidt that that should be done because, if we cannot get fair terms by Christmas, we must continue to press for them?
No. I shall not be consulting the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food today. My right hon. Friend knows perfectly well what is the policy of the Cabinet, and I do not think that I need to repeat it.
In view of my right hon. Friend's proposed meeting with the Chinese Vice-Premier, will he tell the House what is Her Majesty's Government's policy on the selling of Harrier aircraft to the Chinese People's Republic?
No, Sir. I am about to meet the Vice-Premier, and therefore I do not wish to go into details before I have discussed these matters with him. I would only say that, as a general matter, this country's desire is that there should be a high level of civilian trade with the Chinese People's Republic and that we should not just be regarded as its arms suppliers.
May I ask the Prime Minister a question about pay policy? Bearing in mind that in 1974 the right hon. Gentleman publicly urged the miners not to accept a pay settlement of 16 per cent., is it his policy now to stick to 5 per cent. in the present pay round for the nationalised industries; and, if so, how does he intend to enforce it?
I have nothing to add to what I have said before in reply to similar questions from the right hon. Lady. It is quite clear that I can never satisfy her whatever I say. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] But I can assure her that I shall not be including this matter in my official engagements for today.
As one of the right hon. Gentleman's official engagements for the day is to answer Questions from the Dispatch Box, will he say whether he intends to stick to 5 per cent. in this pay round for the nationalised industries and, if so, how he proposes to enforce it?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer made this absolutely clear yesterday and, unlike the Opposition, we do not change our policy from day to day on pay or on anything else.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer referred us to the policies in the White Paper, and I have sought to refresh my memory. Here is the White Paper! Which paragraph? Which policies?
In the course of a busy day, will the Prime Minister consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and confirm with him that he rather under-did his figures at the Guildhall on Monday? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that instead of just £2 billion supporting exports on world markets from the EEC, the total figure for support prices is in fact £5·2 billion and that, in addition to that, there is another £700 million towards storage costs, making the total support cost nearly £6 billion?
If my hon. Friend reads my speech again—I noticed his apparent correction of what I said and therefore went back and checked it—he will find that I was exactly accurate. He has taken a different base.
May I ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees with the speech made yesterday by Mr. Tom Jackson and, if so, whether he will find an opportunity today to tell the people whether his Government's industrial strategy is still firmly based on planning agreements which have never come to pass and on co-operation with the unions which has finally disintegrated?
With respect, there is I believe, a limitation on what is in order in this House and, although Conservative Members do not want to keep any order as long as they are on the Opposition Benches, it is really not my responsibility to comment on the speeches made outside this House by persons for whom I have no direct responsibility.
My right hon. Friend told us that he presided over a Cabinet meeting this morning. Will he tell us whether the Cabinet discussed grants for children of 16 who remain at school, and what was its decision?
My right hon. Friend is very tempting. However, even in these days of freedom of information, I believe that it ought to be possible for people to get together now and again and have a private discussion, without having to reveal it all afterwards.
Although the Prime Minister told the House that he was cogitating on the question of further action on the Bingham report, could he now give an assurance to the House that there will be an inquiry into the enormous sums of money and naval time wasted on the Beira patrol?
I read the right hon. Gentleman's impartial letter in The Times today. I think that we had better wait and see, when the report comes forward, what it includes and whether the terms of reference—[An HON. MEMBER: "Which one?"] The report on the matter that is now being prepared, which will be placed before the House, and upon which we shall put our conclusions to the House. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I think he will be satisfied that such terms of reference will cover all his anxieties.
During the course of the day, could my right hon. Friend find time to send a message to the CBI pointing out to it that for more than two years the British trade union movement has endeavoured to keep within the voluntary guidelines in the fight against inflation but that there has been no response from it—the CBI—apropos prices, and that it, too, has a contribution to make in the fight against inflation? Will he ask it to mend its ways and encourage some control of prices, to match the endeavours of our working people in wage control?
It is important that we should tackle that matter from the prices end, and I am glad to say that there has been considerable progress on the subject, especially in the nationalised industries, both in the interval that takes place between one price increase and another and in the total amount of the increase. I think that we can continue with that progress, provided that there are moderate wage settlements based on the White Paper which the Leader of the Opposition so courteously handed to me.
Business Of The House
May I ask the Lord President to state the business for next week?
The business for next week will be as follows:MONDAY 20TH NOVEMBER — Second Reading of the Companies Bill. TUESDAY 21ST NOVEMBER — Second Reading of the Social Security Bill WEDNESDAY 22ND NOVEMBER— Motions on the referendum orders for Scotland and for Wales. Motions on the Northern Ireland orders on health and personal social services and on rehabilitation of offenders. THURSDAY 23RD NOVEMBER —Second Reading of the Banking Bill. Motion relating to the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 (Transitional Modifications of Part I) Order. FRIDAY 24TH NOVEMBER—Private Members' motions. MONDAY 27TH NOVEMBER — Second Reading of the Weights and Measures Bill.
May I put two points to the Lord President? First, a debate on the European monetary system does not appear in next week's business. Can the Lord President tell us when we shall have it? It is important that the debate takes place before the relevant decisions have been taken in Europe.Secondly, the Lord President will remember that I asked him last week about the report of the Boundary Commission on European constituencies. I understood that it was to be out this week. Is it to appear this week, or has it been delayed again?
The Home Office is working for publication of the Boundary Commission report on 23rd November. That is a slight delay from what I had expected last week, but I hope that it will not cause any inconvenience.With regard to the other matter, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated earlier this week that the Government propose to issue a Green Paper on the subject of the EMS. Clearly, the House will want to debate the issue, and I am sure that some time during the week after next will be convenient.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the debate on the European monetary system will take place before the Government reach any final decision?
All those factors are taken into account. I give my right hon. Friend the assurance that we have given on the subject throughout.
That is no answer.
Last week the Leader of the House was good enough to forecast, although he did not promise, that he would be able to make a statement this week about when the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on oil spillage would be available and when thereafter we could expect a debate. This is an entirely non-partisan matter. Is the right hon. Gentleman now in a position to give me the statement that he semi-promised last week?
I cannot promise when we shall have the debate. I know that the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members are eager that we should have a debate on the subject separately from the debate on the Bill that will partly deal with those questions, but I cannot give an absolute promise of a debate. However, I shall consider the matter and bear in mind what I said to the hon. Gentleman earlier.
Will my right hon. Friend encourage his right hon. Friends to abandon for the duration of the referendum campaign the custom of prohibiting civil servants from participating in national political debate? Secondly, shall we have any time off from the House during January and February in order to fight—pro and con—the referendum campaigns? Both are matters of great national importance.
I am glad to know that my hon. Friend is coming round to playing an active part in the matter. I am sure he appreciates that what the Government will be backing is Government policy. There will be no doubt about that. It would cause great confusion if, in matters of Government policy, civil servants were to campaign in the way that my hon. Friend suggests. It would be a constitutional principle which on most other occasions he would bitterly oppose.
What about the time off?
As we shall have to consider the rate support grant order before long, will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that there will be plenty of time between publication of the Government's intentions and their being debated in the House, so that we may consult our local authorities? Will he also give an undertaking that the order will be taken not late at night but at a reasonable hour?
I expect that there will be a debate on the matter before Christmas. I am, of course, aware of the desire of the House that there should be a proper interval during which consultations may take place. We shall do our best to see that that happens.May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) that I am sorry I did not reply to the most important part of his question. We shall consider whether there can be some arrangement of the timetable to enable participation in the campaigning. Clearly, the House will be able to debate the matter when we move towards the Christmas Recess. We have not quite reached the Christmas Recess yet, although we are moving successfully towards it.
The report of the Shackleton inquiry into the Prevention of Terrorism Act has now been out for some months. When are we likely to have a debate on it?
I cannot promise a debate yet, but I shall certainly look at the representations made by my hon. Friend and others on the subject.
Further to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett), may I ask whether the attention of the Leader of the House has been drawn to a motion about coastal oil pollution, signed by 60 right hon. and hon. Members? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider having it debated before the Government's reply to the Select Committee is published, so that hon. Members' views are taken on board by the Government before they reply, because there is much feeling about complacency in Government Departments over this matter? Such a debate would mean that the whole of the debate on the Merchant Shipping Bill would not have to be purely on that subject.
[ That this House, recognising the very considerable concern, particularly on environmental grounds, of those who live in coastal areas of Great Britain and noting the major criticisms of existing plans and preparations to deal with oil pollu- tion around the coasts of Great Britain made by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, urges Her Majesty's Government immediately to take action to: bring up to date, in conjunction with local authorities, the military and other interested organisations, the emergency procedure for use in event of major oil pollution at sea, to ensure that there are established reserves of modern equipment that can be drawn on by local authorities to deal with coastal pollution, to recognise the need for the emergency planning to he revised and up dated at least every two years, and to transfer the responsibility for the co-ordination of all matters concerned with coastal pollution to a Minister in the Department of the Environment in co-operation with the Scottish and Welsh Offices.]
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no complacency in the Government about the matter. We regard it as being of great importance. I believe that it would not be advisable for the House to hold up the Merchant Shipping Bill. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is proposing that. I do not believe that, when the Bill is introduced, the whole of the debate should be directed to these important questions. I am doubtful, however, whether it is advisable for the House to embark upon a course whereby debates take place on these reports before the Government have given their view. If that happened on many occasions it would make the procedures of the House more cumbersome.
Will it be possible before the Christmas Recess to have a debate on the report of the Procedure Committee?
I cannot give an absolute promise that we shall have a debate before the Christmas Recess because, as the House knows, I have already had numerous requests for debates on other subjects. I adhere firmly to what I said before. The House must have a full debate on the report of the Procedure Committee. I think, too, that we must have a separate debate on the Common Market implications of that report, and that will take a little time. I cannot promise either or both of those debates before the Christmas Recess, particularly as we are moving towards the recess so speedily and successfully.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion no. 58 seeking to negative the Southern Sea Fisheries District (Variation) Order 1978 in the interests of the fishermen of Weymouth? Will he provide time to debate that motion? If, as I suspect, he gives the answer "No", will he reflect upon the whole system under which Parliament supposedly has the right of a negative resolution but in fact that right is habitually withdrawn from Parliament because the right hon. Gentleman does not give time for a debate?[That the Southern Sea Fisheries District (Variation) Order 1978 be not made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 20th July 1978 in the last session of Parliament.]
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my original reply. I shall certanly reflect in the manner that he suggested.
Since the Prime Minister has urged some of his hon. Friends to be constructive in matters concerning the EEC, will my right hon. Friend reconsider his remarks about not having a debate on parliamentary procedure relating to the EEC until after Christmas? Does he recall that a year ago he gave undertakings which were not kept? Has he now approached the Scrutiny Committee for its views on the matter? If so, when does he expect a reply?
That is a separate question. Obviously, the debate might cover the two matters as they overlap. I should have thought that, instead of rejecting my olive branch, my hon. Friend would have accepted it. In addition to the Procedure Committee's recommendations covering Select Committees and such matters, which obviously the House will want to debate fully, other recommendations about European legislation will also have to be discussed. I cannot make promises about debates before Christmas on all these matters without destroying the undertakings I have given to other hon. Members.
Will the Lord President tell us when we might expect a statement on the television licence fee, bearing in mind that inflation has increased the ability of Governments to keep the BBC short of the funds that it needs and that this is an extension of the power of the Executive over an essential part of the media? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be good for Parliament to have a chance to express its view on this matter before the decision is announced?
Of course Parliament will have an opportunity of discussing this matter. I cannot give any date when any decision will be made. In the meantime, I advise the hon. Gentleman not to accept all BBC propaganda that may be offered to him.
Is the Leader of the House aware that there has been an 8 per cent. fall in employment in the weaving, spinning and finishing sectors of the textile industry in the North-West? Will he try to find time in the near future for a debate on this very important industry? Will he also deal with the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and give an indication of how he intends to deal with the rate support grant order to ensure that there is sufficient time between publication of the Government's intentions and the debate on the order so that we may discuss the matter with our local authorities?
On the second matter, I have already promised that I shall take into account the representations made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I know that we have had some difficulties occasionally in the past on these matters. All Governments have had some difficulties in this respect. We shall seek to overcome them, but I cannot give any absolute promise about the times.On the first matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, of course it is a matter of considerable concern. There are other ways in which debates can be raised, but I am not in any way minimising the importance of the subject he mentioned.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the British Leyland—AEC plant in the London borough of Ealing has been threatened with closure, which would mean the loss of some 3,000 jobs with other ramifications for that part of London? A pattern now seems to be developing whereby London seems to be losing more and more industry. Will my right hon. Friend please arrange for a full-scale debate on the Floor of the House on the industrial future of London?
My hon. Friend and several other hon. Members on this side of the House representing London constituencies have pressed this subject and have pressed in particular for such a debate. I cannot promise it in the immediate future, but certainly I am prepared to have discussions with my hon. Friend to see how we can proceed.
With regard to the question of the rate support grant raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends, will the Leader of the House make clear whether, in addition to the debate which he has promised, there will be a statement from the Government regarding the rate support grant and, if so, on which day it will be made?
I have no date to give in response to the hon. Gentleman's question. I am taking into account, however, the representations that he and others have made about the way in which they wish the House to have an opportunity of considering these matters.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of a very important speech made this week by the Prime Minister, when he outlined clearly the inadequacies of the Common Market for the United Kingdom? Will he therefore give urgent consideration to arranging an early debate so that the House can consider ways and means of implementing the Prime Minister's ideas of improving our lot in the Common Market, even if it means withdrawing from the Common Market?
Leaving aside any point arising from the last part of my hon. Friend's question, I accept fully what he said as his premise about my right hon. Friend's speech. There have been some occasions this week when the matter could have been discussed in the House and there are likely to be a number of occasions arising over the weeks and months ahead. Therefore, I do not believe that the House will be denied the opportunity of discussing these matters in full and at length.
Does the Leader of the House remember that there was a clear commitment last Session to have a debate on the Government's road programme and on the associated question of the future of public inquiries on new road projects? Can he give us any indication when the Government will redeem that pledge?
I cannot promise any date, but I shall certainly look up the undertakings that were given and see that they are translated into actuality.
When my right hon. Friend is considering possible subjects for debate, will he look at the claims of energy? A number of very important decisions need to be taken, and it would be valuable if the opinion of the House could be expressed first.
I shall certainly look at the proposition.
Will the Leader of the House tell us when we are likely to debate the Select Committee report on race relations and immigration? It is eight months since this report was presented to the House. Does he not feel that it is time that the House had a chance to debate this very important issue? If he intends to trot out the stock reply which he kept giving before the Summer Recess—that the Opposition should give a Supply Day to discuss this matter—can he give me an instance of when the Opposition have had to give a Supply Day in the past to debate a Select Committee report? Surely such a debate should be taken in Government time.
There have been a number of instances in the history of Parliament when Oppositions who were eager enough to have debates on Select Committee reports have chosen their own time in which to have them. If she had wished, the Leader of the Opposition could perfectly well have done so. If there had been any effective pressure from her Back Benches, I have no doubt that she would have taken it into proper account. I should have thought that that slate was wiped clean now: we have started a new Session.
Has my right hon. Friend taken note of early-day motion no. 20 in my name on educational maintenance allowances? Will he note that when he is arranging the time for discussion of the Education Bill, granted the guaranteed hostility of the Opposition and granted that 150 names stand on my motion, he may run into some difficulty?[That this House considers that the introduction of a universal system of means-tested allowances for the support of I6–18-year-olds continuing their full-time education is one of the cheapest and most effective means of improving the educational and career opportunities of those from poorer homes; and greatly regrets the slow progress made by Her Majesty's Government in giving effect to the promise made by the Secretary of State for Education and Science in the last Session, that such a scheme would operate from September 1979.]
I have seen my hon. Friend's motion, signed by a large number of hon. Members, and I am sure that all these matters will be open to debate when the Bill is introduced.
May I ask the Leader of the House about the promised seat belts legislation and remind him that last time it was lost largely due to his own less than wholehearted support for the measure? On this occasion, will he undertake to bring it in early and pursue It with resolve and determination?
I repudiate the suggestion that it was due to my responsibility that the Bill was lost. It was, I think, agreed in all parts of the House that the matter should be settled by a free vote. I believe that that is the right course for the House in future and that that is the view of hon. Members in all parts of the House, whatever opinion they may have on the subject. The Government will therefore proceed on that basis again and give the House of Commons the power to decide the matter.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will remember the motion which was put down as a result of a report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last March about the export of live animals for slaughter. He will not be surprised to learn that another motion is being tabled, in exactly the same terms, asking for a debate on this issue. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that an early debate will take place on this issue?
I have to acknowledge the considerable interest in this subject throughout the whole House. As the hon. Gentleman knows, certain developments are taking place in the European Community on this subject. It may be desirable that they should be discussed at the same time. There is also an excellent document on this subject, published by the national executive of the Labour Party. I recommend that to the hon. Gentleman.
Will the Leader of the House make a statement next week on the trouble in Her Majesty's Stationery Office, which is making it so difficult not only for hon. Members to get papers but particularly for persons outside the House? For example, people in the Health Service are not able to get copies of the White Paper on the revisions to the Mental Health Act 1959, and, therefore, there can be no study outside the House of this very important issue.Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that we are getting a sight these days of what Hansard might look like if ever it were printed in the A4 size? It is to my dismay and to the dismay of the majority of hon. Members, that it might some day be printed like that.
As it will.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must at last accept the decision of the House of Commons on the size of Hansard. The House of Commons came to a clear decision and a wise one.I fully acknowledge the great inconvenience to many members of the public which has arisen from the continuance of the Stationery Office dispute. Some discussions took place this morning and I hope that they will lead towards a settlement. I acknowledge, however, that if by any mischance that does not occur, we must bend all our efforts to try to overcome the difficulties.
I apologise if I have got it wrong, but will the Leader of the House clarify the question of the debate on the European monetary system? The Prime Minister, in his speech at the Guildhall, said:
In other words, the Government will decide and then we shall debate. That is clearly what the Prime Minister said. Is that what is to happen, or is it not? Secondly, does not this sudden and blinding flash of the Prime Minister about the cost of the Common Market illustrate the point that I put to him the other day —that we should now, after five years, have a Select Committee to look into the whole question of the Common Market so that we really know what the position is?"In due course we shall reach a decision in time for the House of Commons to discuss the issue before I meet the other Heads of Government."
I am not sure whether a Select Committee is the best way to proceed with these matters. There is a Scrutiny Committee which examines the legislation as it comes forward, the relationship of the House and the Commission, and the operations of the Council. On the whole, that Committee works fairly successfully. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting an entirely different examination of the matter, I am not at all sure that a Select Committee is necessarily the wisest way of proceeding. That, however, is a matter for debate and a matter that can be debated, for example, when we come in due course to the procedure questions.I do not believe that we need get into a tangle about the discussion of the EMS. The Government will produce a Green Paper. We have promised that there will be a full debate in the House. There will be debates in other places also, and the House will see that the Government have dealt with the matter in a way which can best enable the House of Commons to bring its influence to bear.
My right hon. Friend talks about the Procedure Committee's report. It quotes verbatim from the Civil Service report of the Expenditure Committee. I assume that they will both be debated—and in order—otherwise we shall be in slight difficulties. When is the Civil Service report of 15 months ago to be debated?
One of the problems that arises is in saying that they should all be debated in order. If it were to be insisted upon by hon. Members in all parts of the House that the reports should be debated in order, the whole procedures of Committees would be greatly entangled.By saying that, I do not mean that the Committee over which my hon. Friend presided is not very important; of course it is. I agree that there must be a debate on it in the House at some time. On the other hand, I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that another matter in which he has had some interest is a more urgent topic for debate, and we must take that into account as well as the representations from different parts of the House in that light.
The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that last week, in all parts of the House, there was a widespread feeling that the inquiry into the prison service should be instituted at the earliest possible moment. Since then some time had lapsed; one understands that. Can the Lord President now give the House an assurance, however, that the inquiry will be instituted next week and that we shall know next week from the Home Secretary the names of the chairman and members of the inquiry and its terms of reference?
I cannot give an absolute promise to the right hon. Gentleman, but in the light of what he has said I shall discuss it with the Home Secretary and see what can be done.
Order. I will call hon. Members if they are brief. If they are not brief, their colleagues will have to be cut out.
Bearing in mind that during the debate on the Bingham report considerable concern was expressed in all parts of the House about the actions and behaviour of certain members of the Government in office in the period concerned, and bearing in mind that the Prime Minister said earlier this afternoon that there was to be some report to the House next week, can the Lord President give the House an indication of when the parliamentary committee of inquiry is to be set up?
The Prime Minister made it quite clear that a further statement would be made to the House on the matter. We had expected that it might be made this week, but it will probably be made next week. We shall fulfil the promise that we made to the House during the debate to take into account the representations made by the House. That is what the Government are doing.
As the Prime Minister has just added to the nation's confusion by so rudely refusing to answer questions from the Leader of the Opposition about what the Government's pay policy is—5 per cent. in nationalised industries and how it is to be enforced—will the Leader of the House explain why there is not to be a statement and a debate next week?
As I do not in any sense accept the hon. Gentleman's premise, there is no need for me to comment on what he said later.
Will the Leader of the House take very seriously the criticism of the method of announcing the rate support grant? Will he also give the House an undertaking that we shall have the announcement some time between Monday and Thursday, and not slipped in on a Friday, as has happened on the last two occasions?
I shall carry out what I have promised to the two hon. Members who have already raised this subject.
Since we are increasingly seeing examples of selective industrial action without loss of pay, particularly in the public sector, will the Leader of the House provide time for debate on this matter so that the Government may make clear whether they consider this an acceptable form of industrial action?
I do not think it is sensible to discuss industrial questions by question and answer in the manner that the hon. Gentleman has introduced.
Will the Government's response to the National Land Fund report be available before the Private Members' motion tomorrow week? Is this not increasingly urgent if such things as the looting of Warwick Castle are to be avoided in future?
I cannot promise that it will be available then, but we shall certainly look into it. I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter before.
Questions To The Prime Minister
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order on the ruling that you gave involving me on the occasion of the answer to Question No. Q1 by the Prime Minister today. That Question asked the Prime Minister if he would include in his engagements for today a speech on devolution. Your rebuke to me implied that all subsequent supplementary questions ought to be concerned with devolution. My impression was that when Questions like this were put down, they were very wide-ranging and lent themselves to the making of very wide-ranging suggestions about what other things the Prime Minister might do today. That was what I sought to do. I was called to order and resumed my seat, but on reflection I think that I was probably right.If your rulings on this kind of Question are to be narrow in this sense, Mr. Speaker, I suspect that hon. Members may put down Questions asking the Prime Minister whether, for example, on a particular day he will make a speech on ducks' eggs, and subsequent supplementary questions will be wholly on ducks' eggs. That is an important restriction of the rights of hon. Members in pursuing supplementary questions on Questions of such a broad character as this.
I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. My judgment is different from his. The Question in the name of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) was limited to that part of the Prime Minister's activities today that might include a speech on devolution. There was an open Question later on the Order Paper, on which it was possible to ask wider supplementary questions, but the House might as well realise that if a Question goes down asking the Prime Minister whether he will make a speech on a given subject on this day, I shall limit supplementary questions to that matter.
May I pursue this matter, with great courtesy, Mr. Speaker? The Question did not ask that. It asked whether my right hon. Friend would "include" in his engagements. It did not ask whether he would today make a speech specifically on devolution and nothing else. It was whether he would include that speech in his official engagements today. My point—and I adhere to it—is that if the engagements of today are mentioned in toto, another hon. Member surely has the right to express alternative suggestions as to how the Prime Minister might use his time today.
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that we obviously disagree. I have given my ruling to the House.
Orders Of The Day
Estate Agents Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.I ought to begin with two formalities. First, I declare an interest as a solicitor and a house owner likely to come into contact with estate agents. Secondly, if I catch your eye towards the end of the debate, Mr. Speaker, I shall ask leave to speak again on matters that may be raised in the debate.
The hon. Gentleman realises that it is not I who will give him permission, but the House.
And, of course, with the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker.This Bill is one the nature of which has come before the House for the past 90 years. There have been many attempts to legislate about estate agents. Every one has been by way of a Private Member's Bill. The first was as long ago as 1888. The last Bill was introduced in the previous Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies). This Bill follows almost completely the substance of my hon. Friend's attempt. There are changes in the form of the Bill which have been made in the light of discussions with leading estate agents' organisations and which take account of many of the comments made both on Second Reading of that Private Member's Bill and in Committee. 1 shall refer briefly to some of them. For instance, there are the definition of residential accommodation, the exemption for receivers, special provision for partners, which I shall explain in more detail if I am asked to do so, and matters relating to reports by accountants. There is one other significant change from the Bill presented by my hon. Friend. The regulation of estate agents in Scotland is defined by this Bill as a devolved matter. I believe that that follows the devolution settlement. It goes without saying that every previous Bill on the subject has been unsuccessful. The consumer has looked in vain to this House for protection against the loss of his deposit. History is being made in that this is the first Government measure to deal with a long-held grievance, namely, that a house purchaser, in perhaps the most important transaction of his life, enjoys no statutory protection against the loss of his deposit. It is a grievance that is prospectively shared by more than half the families in the country. With this Bill, the consumer will be afforded a long-overdue protection, to which he has a right. In tribute to the estate agency profession, I should add that the Bill has the overwhelming support of estate agents' bodies as well as consumers. I believe also that it codifies the long-standing good practices of many estate agents. I have been extremely grateful for the cooperative and constructive spirit in which we have been able to have discussions with estate agents' organisations about these legislative proposals. The purchase of a house is without doubt the most important and costly, and perhaps the most anxious, transaction in which the consumer is ever involved. The house purchaser is entitled to be assured that money entrusted to an estate agent is protected and secured. The purchaser is entitled to expect an acceptable standard of competence from the estate agent. He is entitled to complete openness in all dealings between the agent and the client. He is entitled to expect that the unscrupulous minority of rogue agents who bring a bad name to the eminently respectable majority should not be permitted to practise. Those are the expectations that the Bill hopes to fulfil. The Bill is concerned only with the buying and selling of residential property. Industrial and commercial transactions are excluded. Those buying in that area of activity—often large companies or corporations—are sufficiently well advised and more than capable of looking after their own interests. The Bill avoids registration or licensing. Indeed, it creates a precedent. No attempt is made to seek the regulation of estate agents through the extension of a licensing system. There is no creation of a bureaucracy of control involving compulsory registration or licensing, which I believe is neither necessary nor desirable to achieve the measure of protection required by the general public. Under the Bill, the substantial majority of estate agents who deal fairly and properly with their clients will be able to continue to practise without fear or re striction. The Bill will operate only against the unscrupulous minority of rogues and malpractitioners, the fraudulent, or the dishonest. Unfair and dishonest practices may be proscribed by regulations. Those who are unable adequately to reimburse their clients for loss of money entrusted to them will not be permitted to take money. Estate agents will have to declare to their clients the clients' liability for any prospective charges, and will also have to declare to the other party involved any personal interest they may have in any transaction. At this point it is right to say something about estate agents' fees. They are not covered by the Bill. I believe that it would be wrong to duplicate the provisions of existing prices legislation, and in particular those in the Price Commission Act 1977. Agreed scale fees are effectively prevented by the Restriction on Agreements (Estate Agents) Order 1970, and there is, therefore, competition between estate agents as to fees. Nevertheless, the Government recognise that the level of estate agents' charges is of real concern to many consumers and that the amount of fees on a transaction is substantial. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State therefore intends to refer for examination by the Price Commission the charges, costs and margins of estate agents. I stress that such a reference is in no way a prejudgment of the issue and is in no way connected with the Bill, but since my right hon. Friend had it in mind to make this reference to the Price Commission—it is pure coincidence —I thought it right to make that known to the House now. I thought that it would be wrong if the statement came after the Second Reading debate.
I do not wish to excuse estate agents—I declare my interest in that until five years ago I earned my living in that profession —but are not charges by estate agents in this country generally below the average for the whole of the Western world, and are they not at present extremely competitive?
I do not know how this country compares with the rest of the world. Speaking purely from personal experience, I would say that the percentage rate of charge made by estate agents has risen since the abolition of scale charges. I do not imply any criticism by that remark. The point is that increases in estate agents' charges are unlikely ever to be notified to the Price Commission. That would be very rare, because it is a profession with many branches. The examination that is undertaken is the only way in which the Price Commission will be able to look at the matter.The fact that the Price Commission has been asked to examine estate agents' charges does not involve any prejudgment. Quite often, after a Price Commission examination, the issue has been clarified. The fact that the reference has been made does not involve any judgment against anybody.
On that point, I remind the Minister that when the recommended scale of charges was before the House it was said that the effect of doing away with the scale of charges would lead to the reverse of what the Government hoped, namely, that the scales would go down. It was said at that time that the likelihood was that the scales would go up. This shows that there is a great deal to be said for self-regulation in the profession.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's last remark follows from his earlier remarks. I agree wholeheartedly that there is a great deal to be said for self-regulation, but whether the level of fees follows from self-regulation I am not sure.
Will the Minister tell the House under which of the criteria in section 2 of the Price Commission Act this examination is to take place?
I cannot tell the hon. Lady, offhand. There will be a formal announcement of the reference and I believe that that announcement will be made within a matter of days. Knowing that the announcement was to be made, I thought it proper to tell the House that there was to be an examination, but I cannot give the hon. Lady the precise details of the reference now.
Will my hon. Friend take note that many Government supporters welcome the fact that estate agents' charges and margins are to be scrutinised? Perhaps that scrutiny can be very rigorous, because the costs of moving house these days are absolutely frightening if an owner-occupier uses all the official institutions available.Will the Minister also say how effectively the unofficial estate agency price agreements in existence in some regions of this country are rooted out? In many areas, the charges for dozens of estate agents are precisely the same. How rigorous a look is taken now?
An extremely rigorous look is taken at any agreement to fix charges made by two or more persons, and those agreements would be unlawful. I believe that the Director-General of Fair Trading—this is not dealing with estate agents in relation to other agreements—has registered hundreds—indeed, almost 1,000—of such agreements over the past year or so. That is really a different matter. The Director General's powers of obtaining information about restrictive agreements on charges are perhaps inadequate, but that is another issue, which ought to be dealt with by another Bill.I turn to some of the main features and provisions of the Bill. Clauses 1 and 2 define the activity to be controlled—that is, estate agency work—but because the activities undertaken in estate agency transactions, as commonly understood, are various—they extend to valuation, surveys and auctioneering, to name just a few—and because they differ from practice to practice, it is remarkably difficult to obtain unanimous agreement on an acceptable definition of an estate agent. Therefore, the activity that the Bill regulates is the effecting of an introduction pursuant to instructions in the course of business between a buyer and a seller of an interest in residential property where their aim is to secure a transfer of that interest. The definition of "residential property" in clause 2 does not include within its scope buildings which are principally nonresidential but have an ancillary or incidental residential content. Nor, for the reasons which I have explained earlier, does the protection that the Bill will afford apply in industrial and commercial transactions. Practising solicitors engaged in the course of their profession are excluded from the scope of the Bill. I am aware of the objections to such an exemption, but I am also aware that the buying and selling of houses in Scotland is carried out by solicitors. Solicitors throughout the United Kingdom, however, are already subject to strict rules of entry and conduct and can be struck off for unprofessional conduct. The rules of both Law Societies are as rigorous as any provision proposed in the Bill, and it would be absurd to have two different systems of control applicable to the same persons. Clauses 3 to 8 form the cornerstone of the Bill. They unite the separate elements of consumer protection contained within it. Subject to appeal and, in certain cases, to a warning against the continuation of certain undesirable practices—that, I believe, is a desirable half-way house—the Director General of Fair Trading will be empowered, by order, to prohibit any person from engaging in estate agency work, either in whole or in part, if he considers that person to be unfit to practise on clearly specified grounds. The grounds include conviction for crimes of violence, fraud or dishonesty, contravention of certain provisions of the Bill, a finding of sex or race discrimination committed in the course of estate agency work, and the engagement in any practice in relation to estate agency work which is declared by order of the Secretary of State to be undesirable. Before any hon. Member seeks to intervene, let me say that that power to make an order setting out undesirable practices is subject to parliamentary control. The ultimate deterrent of depriving a person of his livelihood is a powerful sanction, which will ultimately be of benefit both to the public and to the respectable, law-abiding estate agents. That is why so many of them support the Bill. It will not be used lightly or frivolously, and it will be subject to overriding checks and constraints. The aim has been to enable the Director-General to exercise effective control, while permitting him sufficient flexibility in forming a judgment of an agent's fitness to practise. The mere existence of one or more of the grounds for action may not in itself lead to prohibition. At the same time, the agent will be left in no doubt about what actions of his are liable to trigger action by the Director-General. That, I believe, has been achieved by clauses 3 and 4, where, following a warning in some cases, the actions could lead to a banning order. But the agent will be fully aware what action of his might attract the Director General's attention. The constraints on the Director General's powers are contained in clause 7, where provision is made to enable an estate agent to make representations against a decision of the Director General —first to the Secretary of State and, subsequently, on a point of law, to the courts —not only before the Director General makes a banning order but about any refusal of the Director General to exercise his powers under clause 6 to revoke or vary an order made under clause 3 or clause 4. I believe that a fair balance has been drawn here. The Bill attempts to avoid the necessity for two similar but different systems of control. Therefore, it ensures that the Director General's powers do not duplicate those under existing laws on discrimination. Under the Bill, a finding of sex or race discrimination committed in the course of estate agency work will serve only as a trigger event for the exercise of the Director General's powers under the Bill, and only if he should consider it desirable to use those powers. Clauses 9 to 11 enable the Director to call for information to assist him in the discharge of his functions under the Bill. They contain the usual restrictions and penalties on unauthorised disclosure of information to third parties and make provision for powers of entry and inspection to be given to duly authorised enforcement officers. The purpose of clauses 12 to 17 is to achieve an acceptable degree of protection and security for clients' deposits held on their behalf by estate agents. No estate agent will be permitted to accept clients' money unless he is first indemnified against a failure to account for it, subject to provision for exemption where the Secretary of State or the Director General is satisfied that the protection afforded by the Bill is not endangered. Failure otherwise to comply with this provision of the Bill may incur the penalty of a fine. Such a conviction would act as a trigger event for the exercise of the Director General's powers under clause 3. An estate agent will also be required to maintain, and pay any client's money he may receive into, a separate client account. That, I think, is the practice adopted by the overwhelming number of estate agents. It is a common practice of stockbrokers, architects, accountants and solicitors. I believe that the proposal is entirely unobjectionable; indeed, I believe that it is highly desirable. The Secretary of State will be enabled to prescribe by regulation the manner in which a client account will be operated and maintained, and how it should be audited. These proposals will ensure that all estate agents adopt the best existing commercial practices. A comprehensive measure of protection will also be afforded to the general public on a level comparable with the highest standards imposed upon members by the professional estate agency bodies. Another additional advantage of the client account rule is that it will protect the house purchaser against not only the fraudulent or dishonest agent but the careless agent. If an estate agent has become bankrupt, not because of dishonesty or defalcation but through sheer bad luck or judgment, and a client's money has been mixed with the agent's money, of course the house purchaser has to prove his case in the winding up. In future, even if the bankruptcy or insolvency is the result of mere carelessness, protection will be afforded to the house purchaser if a separate client account is maintained.
I am grateful to the honourable—or is it right honourable?—Gentleman for giving way.
I was a little premature in my compliment. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Is he satisfied that he is right in legislating to deal only with residential property and not the rest? Many of his arguments seem to encourage the Bill to refer to estate agents as a whole.