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Business Of The House

Volume 974: debated on Monday 19 November 1979

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The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to inform the House that the business for this week has been rearranged as follows:

On Wednesday 21 November there will be a debate on the case of Anthony Blunt, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration of the documents on the EEC Community budget will now be on Thursday 22 November.

The Supply [6th Allotted Day] announced for 22 November has been postponed until Monday 26 November.

The Opposition think that it is right that the Government should have rearranged the business to have the debate proposed for Wednesday. However, we should still like to have some discussions through the usual channels about Monday's debate, in view of the fact that we may wish to have that debate on the Tuesday, so that the day that the Government have agreed for an economic debate would be the Wednesday. In other words, we should like to discuss through the usual channels the possibility of holding the Supply debate on the Tuesday and the other debate possibly on the Monday.

That is an interesting piece of information, for which I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that it will be discussed amicably through the usual channels.

Although we welcome an early debate on this issue, does not the Leader of the House think it necessary in the circumstances to suspend all proceedings in the Protection of Official Information Bill? Does not he think that there is a risk of its becoming known as the Protection of Incompetence and Covering Up for Treason Bill?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his lurid turn of phrase, but clearly this is a matter that will be relevant to the debate that the Government have provided on Wednesday.

Order. Of course, I shall take some further questions, but I hope that they will be related directly to the business announced for Wednesday.

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that many of us view with great suspicion the Government's proposition to have a full debate on Wednesday on the Blunt case? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I hope that I shall be able to expand on that on Wednesday. In view of the enormous interest in the debate, will the right hon. Gentleman consider extending the time for the debate to 11 o'clock, or even midnight? Does he understand that if we take this debate on the Adjournment we shall be unable to refer to legislation; in other words, we shall be unable to refer to the Protection of Official Information Bill, which really ought to be consigned to the dustbin now?

When we are providing a full day's debate on this important subject I do not think that it would be suitable to extend it still further. What is in order and not in order on the Adjournment is for Mr. Speaker—

It is not for me.

As for the hon. Gentleman's suspicions, if he is suspicious when a full day's debate has been announced, he must have a very suspicious nature.

I congratulate the Leader of the House and, through him, the Prime Minister on managing, with the advice of the censor in Smith Square and the mole at the Paymaster General's office, to divert attention from an inflation rate of 17 per cent. to a 28-year-old scandal.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what I take to be a compliment. As I am a simple person, I do not fully understand what he is getting at.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Select Committee appointments that were blocked on Friday will be got through the House before Wednesday, since the Home Affairs Committee and possibly others could consider and investigate this issue? Obviously it would be much more desirable, rather than having a roundabout debate, if a proper Select Committee could be set up to consider the issue. The necessary motions are on the Order Paper. They were blocked by a member of the right hon. Gentleman's own party. Will he ensure that they go through on, say, Tuesday night in opposed business time?

I regret to tell the hon. Gentleman that the motions were blocked by both sides of the House. I was here, and I heard the shouts of "Object" coming from both sides. I hope that these motions will be passed in record time. However, that is not in my power. It is in the hands of the House.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House and to the Prime Minister and her colleagues for responding very quickly to the demand for a debate on this very important and sensitive subject. However, does the Leader of the House consider that a parliamentary debate is sufficient to deal with this matter of national importance? Can he say more about the Government's thinking, perhaps today? Will not he take into account the fact that serious issues arise from the Prime Minister's statement in reply to my question last week—

Order. With every respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a matter that could be raised during the debate on Wednesday, if he is called.

If I may conclude, Mr. Speaker, perhaps the Leader of the House will indicate to the House whether, in addition to the parliamentary debate, which we welcome, there will be an inquiry so that public confidence may be restored.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which I think is well deserved. The Prime Minister has been more open with and responsive to the House than any of her predecessors.

As for further action following the debate, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman waits for the debate itself.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be intolerable if the scope of the debate were limited to the trivial aspects of this affair and precluded the House from discussing such matters as the proper control of our security services? Will he undertake to reconsider the wording on the Order Paper with a view to changing it from the simple title

"The case of Anthony Blunt"
to a rather wider form of words, so that it becomes clear to all concerned that we may discuss every aspect of this affair?

I should have thought that the Adjournment debate was a debate during which it was possible to raise matters of general interest surrounding this subject. As for trivialising the debate, that is up to hon. Members. On these occasions the House of Commons normally treats the subject under discussion with the seriousness that it deserves.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was led a little astray just now when he contrasted the Prime Minister's actions with those of her predecessors. If he was, perhaps he would would like to consider withdrawing that statement.

I was praising the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I was not condemning the attitude of any of her predecessors.

Many of us entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Protection of Official Information Bill is relevant to Wednesday's debate, since we should not have reeached even our present state of knowledge if that Bill had been law last week, but may we take it therefore that at the outset of the debate we shall have an indication of what the Government now propose to do with a Bill that has been deeply discredited by the events of the past few days?

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to await what is said by the Government spokesmen in the debate.

May we have an assurance that the Prime Minister—I assume that she will be taking part in the debate—who paraded the country during the election campaign talking about law and order and the need for a more sober society, will give a full disclosure of why she turned into nothing more than a common or garden nark in tipping off Professor Blunt?

May we have an assurance that the Home Secretary also will take part in the debate? Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman assure us—he did not respond on this to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook)—that the Home Secretary will give his views on the alterations prepared for the Protection of Official Information Bill, which have already been announced? Further, will the Home Secretary and/or the Prime Minister tell us in the debate what form of inquiry into this matter will be undertaken?

I understand that the Government spokesmen in the debate will be my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.