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Business Of The House

Volume 980: debated on Thursday 6 March 1980

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 MARCH—Supply [13th Allotted Day]: Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate on the growing burden of owning or renting a house, and afterwards a debate on immigration. Both will arise on Opposition motions.

The Question will be put on all outstanding Supplementary Estimates and Votes.

Motion relating to the statement of changes in immigration rules.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Protection of Trading Interests Bill and to the Bees Bill.

TUESDAY 11 MARCH—Second Reading of the National Health Service (Invalid Direction) Bill.

Motions on the Representation of the People (Variation of Limits on Candidates' Election Expenses) Order and on the Deaconesses and Lay Workers (Pensions) Measure.

WEDNESDAY 12 MARCH—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.

THURSDAY 13 MARCH—Remaining stages of the National Health Service (Invalid Direction) Bill.

Motions on the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order and on the County Courts (Northern Ireland) Order.

FRIDAY 14 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 17 MARCH—Supply [14th Allotted Day]: Subject for debate to be announced.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for putting down the National Health Service (Invalid Direction) Bill for two days next week in order to relieve the Minister of his unlawful actions, but is that not typical of the growing confusion of the Govern- ment's legislative programme? Is he aware that apart from the current protests from another place, the Committee on the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill was adjourned half an hour early this morning by the Minister, who was unable to answer a straightforward question? It is a No. 2 Bill. As I understand it, it has been rewritten. The Minister was asked the simple question whether part VI of the Bill, which deals with the rate support grant, was to be proceeded with. He was unable to give an answer, and the Committee was adjourned.

I do not ever recall a Minister adjourning a Committee half an hour before time because of his inability to answer a question of that sort. I know that negotiations are under way, but will the Leader of the House please ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to tell the House whether the Government intend to amend the, No. 2 Bi11 again, or whether the Committee can proceed with its discussions on part VI of the Bill in the knowledge that it will go ahead?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend was acting perfectly correctly. It is encouraging that if a Minister is asked an important question he should ensure that an accurate answer is given. That seems to me to be perfectly reasonable. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that with regard to our legislative timetable the Bill is on schedule, and I trust that unless the Leader of the Opposition succeeds in adopting wrecking tactics Members will be able to rise for the Summer Recess at the normal time.

With regard to the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, a week ago the Committee was discussing clauses 11 and 12, and it has now reached clause 29. There have been no wrecking tactics and no filibustering on the Bill.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House is aware of the question that was put to the Minister. He was asked whether he could state whether part VI of the Bill was still Government policy. He should not have to go far in order to find that out.

I can answer that question. The Bill is Government policy, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it will reach the statute book on schedule.

In that case, why was the Minister not able to give that answer this morning? The Committee could then have proceeded.

May I seek the benefit of consulting with the right hon. Gentleman? On Monday he has put down, to be debated after 10 o'clock, the prayer that stands in my name against the immigration rules. The Opposition have given up half a Supply day for a debate on the same subject. Would it not be for the benefit of the House to have one coherent debate lasting from 7 o'clock through to 11.30 pm? If that requires a technical motion on his part, will he take the necessary steps?

That is an interesting suggestion. It is a matter for the official Opposition. If discussions were opened between the right hon. Gentleman and the official Opposition I would be happy to support a joint prayer.

In view of the undoubted pressure on parliamentary time, will my right hon. Friend consider further the question of withdrawing the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill? The financial provisions as they are now drafted are unworkable, and are the subject of further discussion with the local authorities. The planning provisions are inadequate, and they should be in a separate Bill, and the provisions relating to the Urban Development Corporation manifestly should he in a Hybrid Bill, and are an example of what the Lord Chancellor described once as "elective dictatorship."—[Interruption.]

I am grateful to Labour Members for that enthusiastic reception. My right hon. and learned Friend is his normal, independent and robust self, but I assure him that it is the Government's intention to proceed with the Bill and to ensure that it is placed on the statute book.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when there is such a heavy burden of legislation, and when there are so many subjects that the House wishes and needs to debate, it is sad commentary on the competence of the Government that next week we have to spend two days in order to invalidate—or validate—an illegal action taken by one of his colleagues?

The right hon. Gentleman is not quite accurate. We are spending one and a half days on the subject, at the express request of the Opposition Front Bench.

In view of the fairly high-level representations that have been made about the Olympic Games, could we have a debate on this matter during the week after next?

The Prime Minister, in a gracious reference to me, has said that, subject to my permission, she thought that it would be a good idea to have a debate on the Olympic Games. I am happy to give that permission.

Does the Leader of the House agree that it is time we had a debate on the problems of unemployment on Merseyside, particularly in the light of recent revelations that the Government have been fiddling the figures? Is he aware that calculations of the rate of unemployment on Merseyside are based on the assessment of the work force that existed in 1966, and therefore, instead of being 12 per cent. the figures are likely to be 14 per cent. or even 15 per cent? Is there not a need for a major debate on this serious issue?

I recognise the extremely serious unemployment problem of Merseyside and Liverpool. The Government have recognised that by concentrating their assisted area policy on the most needy areas, and they have offered Merseyside most enhanced benefits in the retention of special development area status. That is the best way to ensure that the problems of Merseyside are ameliorated.

On the question of a debate, I must point out that we had a debate yesterday, which was not particularly well attended. The problems of Merseyside are relevant to a general economic discussion.

With reference to Monday's business, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the House will be invited to approve the spring Supplementary Estimates? In view of the fact that these Estimates involve £850 million extra public expenditure, including £70 million to compensate two Departments for overspending their current year's cash limits, and in view of the importance that cash limits play in the restraint of public expenditure, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that it will be possible to debate these Supplementary Estimates before we are asked to approve them?

These Supplementary Estimates, which will be taken on Monday, are always taken on a Supply day. It will be possible to debate them if the Opposition are prepared to devote time to them. Perhaps my hon. Friend could suggest that to the Opposition. If that is not feasible, it is possible to raise a number of these subjects on Wednesday, when the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill is before the House.

In view of the fact that the steel strike is now in its third month and that there are reports that canning factories that can fruit and vegetables are no longer in production and that the public industries are losing hundreds of millions of pounds, is it not time that the Government came to the House and made a statement that they intend to bring the dispute to a satisfactory conclusion?

It is not Government policy to intervene in industrial disputes, which should be settled by the two sides involved. It is the Government's hope that the two sides will come to an agreement.

As the Leader of the House has had the opportunity to familiarise himself with the importance of information technology since he opened the microelectronics exhibition at the Science Museum by proxy, may I ask him whether a debate on that subject is any nearer the end of his telescope?

I cannot promise an early debate on that matter. I am much better informed on this subject, thanks to the reading that I did for the microchip exhibition, which I was not able to open. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the seminar that he gave me on this subject and I shall do my best to avoid receiving another one.

Is the Leader of the House aware that he seems to have missed a point made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) in relation to the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, in so far as it affects rates in Newcastle upon Tyne? Since the Secretary of State for the Environment is more notoriously known for threatening this House with the symbol of its authority—the Mace—many of my constituents are very disturbed that they are now being threatened on the issue of the level of rates in Newcastle by that same Secretary of State.

That matter can be discussed during the various stages of the Bill. It is not strictly a business question.

Will my right hon. Friend consider a short debate to decide whether the present system of Division bells could be improved by the addition of a system of individual bleepers?

That has been considered by the relevant Committee of the House, which recommended that such a course should not be followed. Obviously there would be considerable inconvenience if the bleepers went off in the Chamber.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the genuine concern felt on both sides of the House about the proposed BBC cuts involving the staffing of five orchestras, including the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and the scrapping of education programmes north of the border? Will he arrange to discuss this vitally important topic?

I have noted with anxiety the reports of decisions of the BBC, particularly those affecting the orchestras. I recognise that because of financial stringency the BBC must make a redistribution of its resources but the way in which it plans its programmes and spends its resources is a matter for the corporation itself.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will not give any time at all next week to the discussion of early-day motion 490, since the reckless and ill-informed assertions in that motion could cause needless anxiety to millions of holidaymakers whose interests are amply safeguarded by £80 million worth of tour operators' bonds and a further £15 million in the Air Travel Reserve Fund?

[ That this House is seriously concerned for the stability of the package-tour holiday industry, and the consequent effect upon British holiday-makers, because of the commitment of package tour operators to charter flight companies which will result in the bankruptcy of many package-tour operators; and urges the Secretary of State for Trade to take immediate action to avoid another disaster of the kind which overtook Court Line Ltd.]

It is not my intention to have an early debate on that motion on package tours. The Civil Aviation Authority has no reason to believe that tour operators will not be able to cover increased charges made by charter airlines from the limited surcharges that they can impose on their customers. One or two operators may have given a guarantee of no surcharges—

On a point of order Mr. Speaker, is it not the case that an hon. Member should declare his interest?

It was my understanding, Mr. Speaker, that it was the convenience and convention of the House that interests should not be declared in asking questions. In any case, my travel industry background is well known both in the House and outside.

The hon. Member is quite correct. At Question Time it is not our convention to declare an interest.

As I was saying, no doubt those operators will have included in their brochure prices some condition to cover potential increases in costs.

The Opposition are wrong in saying that it is an abuse of the House to answer a question. This is certainly not a planted question. I had no idea that my hon. Friend was to raise this important matter. He was perfectly entitled to do so, and I have given a full answer. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is a plant."] It is not a plant, it is a tree.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Secretary of State for the Environment gave a firm commitment to the House, and also to the local authority associations, that he would consider the alternative proposals of the local authority associations to part VI of the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill? It is important to do that, but because of the good progress made by the Committee on the Bill it is impossible to consider the Government's proposals, because they are not firm. We cannot consider hypothetical proposals as part of Government legislation.

I think that the hon. Gentleman has slightly exaggerated the point. He is correct in saying that my right hon. Friend told the local authorities that he would reflect on their proposals. I shall be in communication with him in response to the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman to make sure that any ambiguity is cleared up.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I had intended to reserve this point of order to the end of questions, but the last question came back to the subject. In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has made three consecutive references to work in progress in a Standing Committee upstairs, would you, Mr. Speaker, be good enough to refresh the memory of the House and give it the benefit of your guidance on the question how far, if at all, it is in order to refer in detail to the proceedings of a Standing Committee before it has reported?

I am much obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The House is aware that until a Committee reports to us we do not discuss its activities upstairs. Passing references are entirely different, and I therefore allowed the extra latitude to the Leader of the Opposition that is traditional. It is not a matter that we can pursue at length on the Floor of the House.

What we are questioning, and what I was questioning, is the progress of business. I have never understood this to be ruled out of order. The convention, I understand, is that discussion on the nature of the business upstairs has always been ruled out of order. I was questioning, and still question, the fact that a Minister adjourned a Committee early in rather exceptional circumstances. I want only to ask the Leader of the House, in view of the question that has been asked, whether we can now take it that the Bill can be proceeded with on the assumption that it is firm Government policy and that there is to be no response to the local authority associations, which have been putting up an alternative scheme.

The Leader of the Opposition must not seek to lead me into pre-empting the rights and prerogatives of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Bill, as I have said, is Government policy. Because of the important point that has been raised, clearly, if I may say so, by the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, I shall approach the Secretary of State to see whether any clarification is needed.

Further to the point of order raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), may we take it that your ruling, Mr Speaker, applies also to the proceedings of Select Committees and would therefore be inconsistent with the detailed comment, earlier this afternoon, upon evidence tendered to a Select Committee?

Order. In the case of the Select Committee, it is on Votes and Proceedings for yesterday, published today, that the minutes of the evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee have been reported to the House. The House might as well know that it would not have been in order to discuss what happened in the Committee until it had reported to us.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I raised the subject of the plight of the textile industry with him in business questions last week? Was he also present a few minutes ago, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered a question from the hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson)? My right hon. Friend admitted the tremendous problems facing this industry through no fault of its own. Will my right hon. Friend therefore announce to the House at an early date that he intends to find time for the House to debate one of our biggest and most strategically important industries and so enable hon. Members representing textile constituencies to advise the Government on what policy they believe the Government should follow, particularly in the implementation of selective import controls?

The answer to both parts of my hon. Friend's opening question is "Yes." I heard what the Prime Minister said. I am afraid that I cannot promise an early debate on what I recognise is an extremely important subject, but, together with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I shall once again draw the views of my hon. Friend to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence for an early statement on the near-miss between two jet aircraft and the Leeds-Glasgow passenger flight last Monday? The Ministry of Defence has apparently so far been unable to identify the two aircraft concerned. This has aroused a great deal of consternation. The question that arises is whether the aircraft should have been in that air space at all, and whether they were armed with ordinary or nuclear weapons. This is a serious matter. I ask for an early statement.

I do not know that I can promise the hon. Gentleman an early statement. I shall certainly raise this important matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and ask him to communicate with the hon. Gentleman.

Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a debate in the near future on the European monetary system, particularly bearing in mind reports in today's newspapers that the Government are reconsidering the possibility that we shall enter that system? Does my right hon. Friend agree that many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House would like to express their distaste, first, for a system of fixed exchange rates and, secondly, for a system that might lead to a single European economy, which would be a denial of the sovereignty of the British people?

I am sure that there are a variety of views on those important and technically interesting questions. I cannot promise a separate debate on the EMS as such. No doubt my hon. Friend's views will be relevant to the debate on financial matters involving the Community in general, which I hope we shall have before long.

Further to that question, if the right hon. Gentleman consults the records he will find that he is already pledged to have a full debate in the House before any question of decision is reached on this important matter. If my memory is at fault—I hope it is not—I invite the right hon. Gentleman to give this pledge to the House. It is in the interests of all of us.

I cannot remember myself, any more than the right hon. Gentleman can, the exact words. I shall certainly look at it. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, in principle, that we must have a debate on these important matters.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is about to set up a second Standing Committee to deal with Private Members' Bills during the Session? What has been the result of his reflections over the last seven days in relation to the interesting possibility that another place might send back the Education (No. 2) Bill with clause 23 omitted?

The setting up of a second Standing Committee on Private Members' Bills was not at the forefront of my mind. I am interested to hear my hon. Friend's suggestion. With regard to the Education (No. 2) Bill in the House of Lords, it is the Government's intention to table an amendment there setting a limit to the number of children who might be charged for school transport, limiting it to the first two children.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give some time to considering how the House might debate the Finniston report on engineering? The other place has already had an opportunity to give its views on the report prior to the Government finalising consultations.

In view of the fact that the Minister directly responsible is sitting on the Front Bench at the present time, and in view of the critical state of the shipbuilding industry, displayed today by reports in the press, and the attitude particularly of the civil servants in charge of that industry, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to give some time in the House to debate the future of that industry?

I agree entirely that the Finniston report is of major importance to our industrial future. It is true that we have to revalue the place of engineering in our economy if we are to compete successfully in the industrial world. A whole series of discussions are now going on between my hon. Friend and representatives of industry and engineering. As soon as those discussions are completed, that would be the moment to consider a debate.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm what I believe I heard him say a few minutes ago, namely, that there will be a debate on our financial arrangements with the European Community? If he is unable to arrange for a debate purely on the problem of textiles, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), will he arrange for a debate on the wider issue of textiles and footwear, which are suffering from unfair competition from overseas? Can he say whether there will be a debate in Government time to ensure that decisions of the House that have already been taken on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill can proceed in order that the Bill can be passed?

That was a wide range of questions. I can confirm what I said in my reply to the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), that we should have a debate on the financial aspects of the Community. The question of footwear is important as part of the general textile debate. I shall also draw that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. As to the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, I understand that it has again been put down for 14 March and I think that we must wait and see what progress it makes.

While the Leader of the House may be reluctant to pre-empt decisions of the Secretary of State for the Environment with regard to part VI of the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill—and one can perhaps understand why—does he agree that if there are to be changes in Government policy they should be announced in this House and not at Conservative conferences at the weekend?

I have made it quite clear that provided the House is sitting, major statements on Government policy should be made to this House.

Does my hon. Friend recall that in the last few months he has twice said from the Dispatch Box that there is no change in Government policy towards the Palestine Liberation Organisation? Will he confirm that that is still so, because if there is to be any change some of us will give it implacable opposition?

I am happy to say that the basis of the Government's policy on the Middle East is unchanged. It is to effect as speedily as possible peace and reconciliation, based on justice.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm his answer to the hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne)? Is it clear that the Government have no intention of giving any time whatever to debate the breaking of cash limits by one of the four biggest spending Departments of State?

I do not think that that was what I said. I said that there would be an opportunity, either on the Supply day on Monday or during the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill on Wednesday, to raise a variety of matters about which my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) is rightly concerned.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look at early-day motion 454, which has been signed by myself and a growing number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, re- garding the prohibition of right-hand mounted side-cars?

[ That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) Regulations 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 140), dated 4th February 1980, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th February, be annulled.]

Can he say whether the House or the Committee on Statutory Instruments will be able to discuss that regulation before it becomes effective?

I have seen both the regulation and my hon. Friend's early-day motion. I shall see whether it is possible to find time for a debate.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that concern about the plight of the textile industry enjoys widespread support among all parties in the House? Does he accept that one of the reasons for an early debate is that hon. Members who represent textile constituencies can call for the sacking of the Chairman of the Services Committee, who we understand has authorised the issue of white shirts made in Hong Kong to House of Commons staff?