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Business Of The House

Volume 976: debated on Tuesday 20 November 1979

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May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for the week after the Christmas Adjournment?

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

The business for the first week after the Christmas Adjournment will be as follows:

MONDAY 14 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Tenants Rights etc. (Scotland) Bill.

Motions on the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) Order, and on the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Orders.

TUESDAY 15 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Housing Bill.

Remaining stages of the Petroleum Revenue Tax Bill.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Bail etc. (Scotland) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY—Motions On the rate support grant orders for Eng land and Wales.

Motion on the Value Added Tax (International Services) (No. 2) Order.

THURSDAY 17 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Competition Bill.

Motions on the Southern Rhodesia orders.

FRIDAY 18 JANUARY—Private Members' motions.

I take it that the business is to some extent provisional, in view of the serious situation that may develop in the steel industry and the over-spill that may affect the coal industry and elsewhere if there should be a strike. We hope that there will not be a strike, but in the circumstances I take it that the Leader of the House would rearrange the business so that the House could discuss what could be a catastrophe.

I am disappointed that we have not yet had the debate on defence. It has been half-promised by the Leader of the House. The Secretary of State for Defence clearly wishes to have a debate and we have asked for one. What is there in the business for Thursday that would prevent its being put back to the following week, so that we could achieve what is, apparently, the desire of the Government and is certainly the desire of the Opposition?

When one is announcing business this far in advance there must always be an element of the provisional, and it is subject to review in the light of various developments. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the defence debate. We should have a debate very soon after we return. The right hon. Gentleman says that I have half-promised the debate. May I now go three-quarters of the way and say that I hope to have the debate in the following week?

The Leader of the House will have heard the exchanges a few minutes ago. Does he not believe that there is an obligation on the Government, when they decide to overturn a decision of the House, to say so by means of a clear statement and be subject to cross-examination on it? Will the Leader of the House arrange for such a statement?

I cannot agree to that, because it is a clear constitutional doctrine that no Parliament can bind its successor Parliaments. Every decision that is taken by a Parliament binds that Parliament, but not its successors. The Conservative Party's attitude has been consistent, both in Opposition and in office. We feel that no good is to be served by raking over those almost dead coals.

Order. In last night's important debate many hon. Members were not called when they wished to be called. The same will happen tonight if hon. Members take up too much time on business questions. A statement is to follow. I ask hon. Members to be as brief as possible.

Does the Leader of the House recall that some time ago he expressed the hope that we should be able to debate the Select Committee report and the Goodman report on charities before Christmas? Could he arrange for such a debate early in the new year?

I am most anxious to make progress in this matter. We are waiting for a reply from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. When that is given, the House can proceed.

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the strange constitutional doctrine that he is propounding, that the decision of one Parliament can be overruled by the veto of a Cabinet? The Leader of the House has not brought the issue to the House so that the House can reconsider the question. If he really wants to respond to his constitutional doctrine should he not give the House the opportunity to reconsider in the light of the changed circumstances?

A resolution of the House is not in the same category as legislation, because legislation, of course, binds successive Parliaments until it is repealed. The Government's attitude has been consistent. That attitude is even stronger and more justified today. What possible good can be served, when peace is in sight in Rhodesia, by raking up this stuff all over again?

Since a Foreign Office Minister recently visited Israel, does my right hon. Friend envisage that a statement will be made on that mission or, alternatively, may we have a debate on the Middle East? We wish to be assured that there is no change in Government policy.

I can assure the House that there is no change in Government policy towards the Middle East. Our policy is to bring peace to that troubled part of the world. Whether we can have a debate on foreign affairs after the recess must remain to be seen when the House returns.

Can the Leader of the House confirm that he has had, or is about to have, talks with the supporters of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill about the availability of Government time for its remaining stages? Will the right hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance that such time will not be given?

I have had no talks with anybody about the granting of Government time for the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. However, an abortion Bill was introduced when the Labour Party was in power, and the Government gave time for the Bill to be discussed so that the House could reach a decision.

Will my right hon. Friend take note that enthusiasm for an early defence debate is not confined to the Opposition but that we are all looking forward keenly to such a debate, with a Division at the end, so that we can see where all Opposition Members stand on this issue?

My hon. Friend's observation confirms me in what I said to the Leader of the Opposition—that we hope to have the debate soon after we return. I am seven-eighths of the way to meeting the Leader of the Opposition.

Yesterday the House debated the Health Services Bill. We have not yet had time to discuss the Royal Commission on the National Health Service. Does the Leader of the House agree that we are debating these matters in the wrong order and that we should have discussed the Royal Commission report before giving a Second Reading to a Bill the provisions of which may be influenced by that report? May we have an early debate on the two other outstanding reports—the May report and the report on legal services?

In an ideal world the hon. Gentleman would be right. It would have been better to have a debate on the report first. Unfortunately, such a debate could not be fitted in. However, I shall try to fit in that debate as early as possible after we return from the recess.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate without too much delay on the Government's sensible and popular proposals, disclosed last week in the Daily Mirror, whereby people who are on strike should be deemed to be receiving strike pay before they receive State assistance?

The Daily Mirror is a stimulating and interesting paper but it is not a reliable source of Cabinet decisions before they are announced.

May I revert to the unsatisfactory answer that the Leader of the House gave to the Leader of the Liberal Party and to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) on the casual announcement this afternoon of an important Government policy? I refer to the general Government decision not to proceed with the prosecution of British companies that have broken British law.

Throughout our debates on the Zimbabwe Bill it was plain that the amnesty then proposed was an intra-Rhodesian amnesty designed to bring about conciliation between the parties to the dispute. The general question of our public position in the rest of the world—whether we mean what we say, and our reputation for fair dealing—is at stake in Bingham. It is not good enough to dismiss this matter in such a cursory way.

The right hon. Gentleman is confusing two different issues. The first issue is the question of the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to proceed with prosecutions. That is a matter not for me but for the DPP. The second issue involves an inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman's opinion is that an inquiry would be useful. That is not the Government's opinion. We believe that an inquiry of this nature is unnecessary and untimely and would be liable to damage Britain's reputation and cause embarrassment at a time when peace is, thank goodness coming to Rhodesia.

Since the Common Market Commission is stalling in its prosecution of the French Government for failing to allow British lamb into France, will the Government provide time so that the House can demonstrate its contempt for the French action and for the Common Market Commission?

It is most important that the law should be obeyed, whether it is domestic law or international law. I shall exert what influence I have over the French President in order to persuade him to comply with that request.

Is the Leader of the House aware that if the predicted steel strike takes place early in the new year many of my hon. Friends who represent coal and steel communities and heavy industry areas will feel that it is necessary to come back to Parliament a week early to take the opportunity to educate the Tories into ending their lunatic policy of allowing imported coal into Britain? Is he aware that that policy is shutting down pits in South Wales and elsewhere? The Government should establish a decent wage, at least in line with the cost of living, for the many thousands of steel workers.

Of course I agree that there is a serious situation in the steel industry. I understand that a meeting is taking place tomorrow. We must all hope that there will be a reasonable settlement to the dispute.

I am sure that the Minister is considering the possibility of a debate on the consultative document on the structure and management of the National Health Service in Scotland. While he is doing that, will he consider the remarkable statement that was made yesterday at Scottish Question Time by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who said of that document, which is still not in the Vote Office:

"However, there is no question of a consultative document of that nature being put in the Vote Office."—[Official Report, 19 December 1979: Vol. 976, c. 603.]
Will the Leader of the House reflect that his Scottish colleagues are increasingly running the Scottish Office by press release from Edinburgh rather than through the House?

The document to which the hon. Gentleman referred was published by the Stationery Office. It was not a White Paper, nor was it a Parliamentary Paper. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the normal procedure is to make such copies available to the Library. That should have been done. I regret that it was not.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—[HON MEMBERS: "Ah."] Well, if I were in a trench I would sooner have my hon. Friend with me than some Conservative Members.

Order. Hon. Members are getting very excited. I know that we rise tomorrow, but we must deal with today's business first.

Christmas is breaking out all over. I want to follow up my hon. Friend's question, because the Opposition have been considering how to use parliamentary procedures in order to get a debate on the serious situation into which we seem to be drifting in coal and steel. We have not forced this issue, because we understand from the Leader of the House that negotiations are going on, and we do not wish to prejudice them. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands that if there were a steel strike and consequences flowed from that, it could be the biggest catastrophe since 1926. I am sure that that is being borne in mind by the negotiators. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that in the event of such a strike on 2 January he will consult the Prime Minister in order to ask Mr. Speaker to recall the House at an earlier date?

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, I appreciate the importance of saying nothing at this stage that could exacerbate the situation. The Government are always watching to see whether such a recall of Parliament is necessary. However, it would be inappropriate to give the right hon. Gentleman such an undertaking.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the best way to meet the Leader of the Opposition's request is for the general secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation to accept the considerable body of opinion that is now hardening within his union, and within my constituency, against the strike? This morning I received more than 500 signatures from members of that union expressing opposition to a strike. Does my right hon. Friend accept that perhaps there is no feeling for a strike among members of that union?

This matter is under negotiation, but I am sure that we would all agree that a strike should be used as a weapon of last resort, after every other effort to secure conciliation and peace has failed.

Are not the handling of the Blunt case and now the abandonment of the Bingham report and the proceedings arising from it, concerning the breaking of oil sanctions—which prolonged the rebellion in Southern Rhodesia and the civil war, with a consequent increase in loss of life and damage to neighbouring countries—both further evidence of a decline in the standards of Government conduct? Should the House not have an early opportunity to debate that damaging decline in standards?

There has been no decline in standards of conduct, although there has recently been a decline in standards of acting.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I point out to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that even those of us who care for him are becoming tired of his quips and quiddities when serious matters are being discussed?

Order. The Leader of the Opposition said that Christmas was breaking out, but it is breaking out in patches. In the interests of the House, I shall call four more hon. Members and I shall then move on to the statement.

The business that the right hon. Gentleman has set down for Monday 14 January is unacceptable to the majority of Scottish Members. Bearing in mind that he has put down three of the most controversial pieces of legislation—a tenant's rights Bill, a rate support grant order and a housing support grant order—all of which are exceptionally controversial—would it not be more sensible if he postponed the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) Order to another day? We all want to discuss it at length.

I have been under great pressure to have those subjects debated. There will be a general debate on those issues, and there will be an opportunity to debate and vote on the orders. We have had discussions through the usual channels, and if the right hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie) objects to that arrangement, he should raise his objections through the usual channels.

Tonight we shall discuss whether Ministers should be allowed to attend an hour and a half later than Back Benchers on Fridays. Has the promise of the Leader of the House, made on 31 October, been carried out? He said then that the decision of the House could not be implemented immediately, because he would have to undertake consultations about the effect on staff, and so on. However, rumours are going round that no such consultations have been held and, indeed, that they have been deferred until February. Will the Leader of the House tell us now, so that we can debate the subject sensibly tonight, what consultations have been held with the staff on these premises concerning the effect of sitting from 9.30 am to 3 pm on Fridays?

That is a question not only for myself but for the Commission. There have been consultations, but we have not yet passed the motion. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that further consultations should take place, of course we shall carry them out.

Will the Leader of the House undertake to find time for a debate, before any decision is made, on the outrageous proposal that Members of the European Parliament should have facilities within the precincts of West-minster? Is he aware that trade unions and other responsible bodies are unable to book rooms, and that hon. Members are forced to use rooms outside the precincts? Is he further aware that although many of us will not join my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Bols-over (Mr. Skinner) in the same trench, we may well be forced to share a squat?

It is not outrageous that consideration should be given to the question whether there should be some form of limited access—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—to the House by Members of the European Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman has a different view. I am entitled to my view, just as he is entitled to his. That decision will eventually have to be taken by the House, and it is up to the House to decide on these allied matters.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to reports that appeared in the newspapers this morning, and the exchanges in the House yesterday, concerning the allegations made by nurses at Broadmoor hospital about the ill-treatment of patients there? Can he give an assurance that there will be a very early debate on this subject, given the direct responsibility of the Secretary of State for Social Services to this House for the running and organisation of special hospitals?

I have seen the somewhat distressing reports to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I can not promise a debate, but I shall certainly draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend.