House Of Commons
Thursday 24 April 1980
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
GREATER LONDON COUNCIL (GENERAL POWERS) (NO.2) BILL ( By Order)
TYNE AND WEAR BILL [ Lords] ( By Order)
BRITISH RAILWAYS BILL ( By Order)
SOUTH YORKSHIRE BILL [ Lords] ( By Order)
Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time upon Thursday 1 May.
Oral Answers To Questions
Gross Domestic Product (Growth Rate)
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what are the main factors on which he bases his assumption of average growth rate for the years 1981 to 1984.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked me to apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for his inability to be present in the House this afternoon as he is attending an International Monetary Fund interim committee meeting in Hamburg.As explained in the medium-term financial strategy, the 1 per cent. average growth rate of GDP was simply an illustrative assumption for the years after 1980. It is similar to the average growth achieved between 1973 and 1979.
As to the figure stated in the financial strategy being simply an illustrative assumption, does the Chief Secretary realise that it is a crucial assumption in relation to the public sector borrowing requirement target? What will he do if that assumption is unfulfilled? The right hon. Gentleman made a comparison between 1973 and 1979. Is he aware that, taking into account his planned reductions in public services, that rate of growth will require twice the rate of business output that was achieved during those years? How will he achieve that?
It is true that there is a real significance in the assumptive implications of this figure, in respect of both taxation and public spending. The realism is underlined by the fact that it is no more than the average rate of growth that was achieved between 1973 and 1979. As in all matters, the House and the Government should be cautioned to take these matters as they arise, year by year.
The House is well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's contempt for the medium-term financial plan. Will he answer some questions? First, the plan is revealed by the evidence given to the Select Committee by Treasury officials to be grossly over-optimistic and not overcautious as was stated earlier. The Government are expecting a continuing fall in the output of manufacturing industry and in public expenditure, so any increase can come only from private services. Which private services will increase to that level? Will they be bingo parlours and luncheon vouchers?
I am unashamed in my agnosticism about economic forecasting, and it is an attitude that I commend to all parts of the House. There are no grounds whatsoever for the right hon. Gentleman to use the word " contempt ". It is that kind of language that devalues him and debate in the House. I do not believe that it is generally assumed that the financial plan is grossly over-optimistic. Indeed, a number of commentators have suggested that in respect to North Sea oil it is under-optimistic.
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. I shall replace the word " contempt " with " distaste and mistrust ". The right hon. Gentleman said that he had chosen the figure for the rate of growth because that was the rate of growth in the last five years. Is it not the case that in the next four years the Government are proposing to follow a fiscal and monetary policy that is far more restrictive than that followed in the last five years? Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman has boasted of that in every debate that we have had in the last 12 months.
I am pleased to accept an apology from the right hon. Gentleman, if only because it is such a rare occasion.With regard to the movement of the economy in the second part of this Parliament in an assumptive fashion, there is no doubt that the conditions of world trade and a reversal of stock building can have a real impact upon these figures, and I have no doubt that those factors have been taken into account.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most important points about such assumptions is that there they are aggregate assumptions, and that within those totals, through policies which result in greater efficiency in certain sectors of the economy, one might see substantial growth offsetting other sectors, which would inevitably be in decline?
That is right in that there is much more to economics than macro-equations. There is also the whole impact upon personal motivation by Government policy.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to what extent his policy to reduce interest rates will be affected by changes in United States prime rates of interest.
The Government's policy remains to allow interest rates to fall, as and when this is consistent with the requirements of domestic monetary control. Since my right hon. and learned Friend's measures last November, there has been a marked slowing down in the rate of growth of sterling M3.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend on that achievement, but does my hon. Friend agree that the rate of interest that currently prevails in Britain depends to a considerable extent on the high level of prime rates of interest in the United States? Will he therefore concede that it is vital for the Government to continue to pursue their strategy of controlling public expenditure and sterling M3 in order to achieve the reduction in the rates of interest which we all recognise is desirable?
I agree entirely with the second part of my hon. Friend's observation.
Since the Chief Secretary, at least, is an agnostic in terms of monetary religion, and since he does not believe, and does not in fact know whether the Government's monetarist policies will lead to a reduction of inflation, what is the purpose of these monetary policies and high interest rates, which are merely destroying large sections of British industry?
The purpose of these policies is to bring down inflation. They will bring down inflation, and my right hon. Friend, far from not believing that, was among the first right hon. and hon. Members, on either side of the House, to emphasise the importance of monetary policy on the course of inflation.
I support the courageous strategy and policies of the Government—I congratulate all my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench—but does my hon. Friend agree that high interest rates are damaging to commerce and industry, particularly to new smaller businesses? Will he consider implementing a form of differential interest rate for commerce and industry, which I understand is practised by many countries with which we trade and which are our major competitors?
In a sophisticated financial economy such as ours, there is no practical means of insulating one sector of the economy—because there would inevitably be arbitrage—even if it were desirable to do so. We must concentrate on monetary measures which enable us to reduce interest rates generally. That is one of the main purposes behind the medium-term financial strategy. With regard to interest rates in Britain particularly, my hon. Friend knows that interest rates throughout the world have risen by as much as they have risen in this country over the past 12 months.
The Chief Secretary has wisely and publicly repudiated the crude theory on which Government policy was previously based. What changes will be made in that policy?
My right hon. Friend has a philosophic disposition, and his speeches reflect that, but that is no excuse for an observer as percipient as the right hon. Gentleman wilfully to misrepresent them.
Tax And Price Index
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what is the latest published increase in the tax and price index.
The tax and price index rose by 176 per cent. in the 12 months up to March 1980.
Will the Minister tell the House whether he agrees with the comment by his Department, in a press release dated 18 April 1980 concerning the tax and price index, that it is accurate only once a year, namely, from Budget to Budget? If that is so, how can it possibly be used by either employers or trade unions in collective bargaining arrangements that take place throughout the pay round, which lasts from November to July? In those circumstances, is it surprising that no one makes use of this so-called tax and price index?
I do not have before me the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I hope he will excuse me from giving a specific answer on that point. With regard to his more general point on the tax and price index, I believe that this index is valuable alongside the retail price index, just as it has been valuable to have data published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, all of which are designed to try to provide some clearer public education in the movement of prices.
On the 1 o'clock ITV news programme, Mr. Sidney Weighell said that his members were expecting to get a 20 per cent. pay increase because they want to keep their standard of living at the same level as a year ago, and that the retail price index had gone up by 20 per cent. Will my right hon. Friend send a telegram to Mr. Weighell and all the other people on his executive to tell them that if they need to keep their standard of living at the same level as last year they require only 17·6 per cent.?
Perhaps a few remarks from this Bench will obviate the public expenditure necessity of sending a telegram. I think that negotiations between Mr. Weighell and British Rail are best left to the appropriate people, namely, the management of British Rail, but it is undoubtedly true that productivity must be a major factor in whatever wage settlements are concluded.
Is it not clear from what has been said today that the tax and price index has lacked credibility from the word " go "? It would have been better if the Government had concentrated on the retail price index, to which wage bargainers in industry pay attention and which would have some effect on inflation if it were kept down.
That is a somewhat narrow reaction. The major embarrassment of the tax and price index is that it was an innovation, and because it was an innovation it was deeply repugnant to many on the Labour Benches. It is true that the retail price index, by virtue of its long existence, is much greater in the whole nature of public debate on these matters than any other index.
Black Economy (Tax Frauds)
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on his discussions with the Inland Revenue Staff Association on tax fraud relating to between £5,000 million and £11,000 million of untaxed funds from the black economy.
My right hon. and learned Friend has not yet had any such discussions, but we have seen the recent statements made by the Civil Service unions on the black economy.
Do they accept the figures in the question?
The figures are slightly speculative, as I am sure the Civil Service unions would be the first to acknowledge. I refer the hon. Gentleman and the House to some of the later work that has been undertaken by the Central Statistical Office, which suggests that the black economy may be running at 3½ per cent. or less of gross domestic product. Of course, we are not complacent about that figure either.
I accept that the real antidote to the black economy is a substantial reduction in direct taxation, but will my hon. and learned Friend nevertheless take on board the fact that this is a serious problem? At the very least, does he expect any information to be fed back by the additional social security inspectors who are to be appointed, so that action can be taken against both employers and employees?
No. We expect to have better information from the revenue departments, which are naturally alert to this problem. I am sure that we shall take positive action in the light of anything that we discover through them.
Is it not time that the Government had a better informed view of this problem, especially as indicators are now being given by people who have expertise in the matter and since the Government have made such a fuss over the question of social security fraud, which is piddling in comparison with the huge amounts involved?
I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that the first figure was given during the Administration of which he was a distinguished ornament by the then chairman of the board of Inland Revenue to the Expenditure Committee. At that time the number of staff at the Inland Revenue had reached an all-time high, so there is no precise correlation between the black economy and the number of people employed in the revenue departments.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what representations he has received from small businesses regarding high interest rates.
We continue to receive a number of representations from small business men on the current level of interest rates.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is no apparent mechanistic link between money supply and inflation, or between the public sector borrowing requirement and inflation? Is it not the deliberate and disastrous policies of the Government, who pay lip service to small businesses, that are producing the abnormally high rates of interest that are smashing small business after small business? What are the Government going to do about it?
As I said in answer to an earlier question, the rate of interest has risen throughout the world by roughly the same amount. The whole world is facing the same inflationary problems. It is interesting to note that when the Government first took office the rate of inflation, as measured by the six months' annualised increase in the RPI, but excluding seasonal foods—which is generally regarded as the best measurement of the underlying rate of inflation—was 12·2 per cent. It is now 16·4 per cent. That is almost exactly in line with the increase in inflation rates worldwide over the same period. Similarly, countries worldwide have sought to contain the increase in inflation rates by monetary policies that involve, for the time being, a high rate of interest. Our intention is to bring interest rates down for the sake of small businesses, and others, as soon as it is safe to do so.
In general, are interest rates positive or negative in real terms?
That is an interesting philosophical question. Whether interest rates are positive or negative depends upon the expectation of inflation, and expectations differ. If we measure the current short-term interest rate against the current rate of inflation, interest rates are negative at present.
Apart from high interest rates, it is clear that small businesses will be seriously affected by the 6 per cent. decline in manufacturing output next year, which has become apparent from the cross-examination of officials before the Treasury Select Committee. Will the hon. Gentleman explain how the massive loss of jobs from medium and large companies is to be made up by small businesses?
I do not know what massive loss of jobs the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but he seems to have a certainty about the future which some of us lack. However, small businesses would be much more adversely affected by a resurgence of inflation, which is what would happen if the policies advocated by Labour Members were followed.
As lower differential interest rates for business are clearly impossible, would it not be a good idea to introduce a lower domestic rate of interest as soon as possible?
That is what we are doing.
That is precisely the policy of Her Majesty's Government.
May I direct the hon. Gentleman's attention to the figures that were published on Tuesday showing the massive loss of jobs in the past seven months since the Government have been in power? Is he aware that his officials gave the view to the Treasury Select Committee that there will be a massive increase in unemployment over the next 12 months, and that no outside forecaster believes that unemployment will fail to reach 2 million within a year from now? Why is he so complacent about the consequences of his policies?
The real question is "Why is the right hon. Gentleman so impertinent? " Even if unemployment were to rise to 2 million, that would be a smaller increase than the increase in unemployment during his stewardship of the Exchequer.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he now expects the inflation rate to fall substantially.
The Financial Statement and Budget Report forecast published at the time of the Budget envisaged that the 12-monthly increase in the retail price index would peak at slightly over 20 per cent. in the second quarter of this year before falling to 16½ per cent. in the fourth quarter. I cannot helpfully expand on those forecasts.
Now that the inflation rate has almost certainly exceeded 20 per cent., does not that show that the right hon. Gentleman's speech in January in which he said that Britain was in for three years of unparalleled austerity is proving only too correct? In view of his latest speech on the movements in money supply and inflation, does he agree that, although it was an honest and courageous speech, it exposed the mumbo-jumbo of the Government's economic thinking?
If I wanted commendation for my speeches, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not think me discourteous if I say that I should not look to him for it. If I had to comment on the nature of my speeches, I should say that they are trite and commonplace rather than courageous.
Is my right hon. Friend worried at the current level of the increase in the cost of public sector pay, which, with the help of Professor Clegg—about whom I shall not say any more—is touching 25 per cent.? Will he undertake that the Government will get a grip on the problem and ensure that this disastrous situation does not repeat itself in the coming year?
It is important to get the issue of Professor Clegg into perspective. Many of my hon. Friends were fairly happy to fight on an election manifesto that had no commitment to disavow the Clegg recommendations. The real test is the extent to which settlements for the current pay round are manageable within the current cash limits. On that analysis, I think that there is some ground for modest hope.
Is the Chief Secretary aware that the innovation of the Government that is repugnant to Labour Members is their abandonment of their direct responsibility for promoting sensible policies on wages and prices? Will the right hon. Gentleman, who has been the architect of that, disavow the Government's policy before it is too late?
If one can translate that into everyday current political experience, it is an invitation for the Government to endorse a quasi-statutory control of incomes which collapsed, with all the consequences that are now being dealt with by Professor Clegg. Although we may not learn all that much in politics, I think that we have learnt that much.
Will my right hon. Friend continue to remind the House and the country that when the Labour Party was in Government it achieved a reduction in the inflation rate only when the Labour Government were forced to introduce the so-called monetarist measures that they now criticise us for pursuing?
I think that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was an imperfect monetarist. When I look at the Labour Party, I take sustenance from Lord Butler by accepting that he is the best monetarist that we have.
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what I think he intended to be a compliment? I remind his hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) that the rate of inflation was halved in the year before the Labour Government went to the IMF. Let him put that in his pipe and smoke it. Given the right hon. Gentleman's distaste, contempt or distrust of Treasury forecasts, why has he skulked behind the Red Book forecast for inflation at the end of the year? As an honest and imperfect monetarist, does he believe that the rate of inflation in the fourth quarter of this year will be as low as 16½ per cent.? Let him come out from behind the shelter of the Red Book and tell us what he really thinks.
I am complimented that the right hon. Gentleman should regard my remarks as a compliment. I know that he travels in stony territory and that it is hard to get compliments these days. I quote 16½ per cent. from the Red Book because it is published with the authority of the Government and because it is intended to contribute to public discussion and understanding. The House and politicians will get themselves into trouble only when they crucify themselves on these figures.
Construction Programmes (Expenditure)
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he expects to be able to give further details of future public expenditure on construction programmes beyond 1980–81.
I cannot give my hon. Friend any undertaking about when I shall be able to provide such information, because detailed decisions on the composition of expenditure programmes beyond 1980–81 have not yet been taken.
I understand that. However, with regard to table 5.2 of the public expenditure White Paper—which stops at the end of 1980–81—does my right hon. Friend accept, in principle, that medium-term targets are as important for construction planning as they are for monetary control?
I understand that point, and I know that the industry has expressed anxiety on this matter. Those considerations will be taken into account when we contemplate the next White Paper.
Although I accept that the Minister is, not unnaturally, reluctant to publish the figures for construction, are not the housing figures available in the Estimates? Do not they show a cut of £2·5 billion a year by 1983, most of it in bricks and mortar? Is not that a suicidal policy when 235,000 building workers are unemployed?
I readily confess that I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's specific question, but I shall ensure that an answer is sent to him. There is no point in deceiving ourselves about the construction industry. If there is to be a cut in the rate of inflation, and if an interim price is to be paid for reduced activity, the construction industry, no less than other parts of the economy, will have to pay it.
In view of the forecast decline in investment in the construction industry, why are the Government deliberately understating North Sea oil revenues by £3 billion or £4 billion in current prices, and probably £7 billion or £8 billion a year in foreseeable terms? Is it not more important that those revenues are used to strengthen industry and investment in this country and do not go abroad in capital outflow and destroy our industry through a high-value pound?
Although that is a controversial question, it is none the less interesting and perceptive, I suggest that it goes a good deal wider than the public expenditure construction programme. The conclusion that I draw from the hon. Gentleman's observation is that it is unfair to characterise the medium-term forecast as some facile piece of optimism.
Clearing Bank Profits (Taxation)
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer when his consideration of the imposition of a special tax on the windfall profits of the leading clearing banks will be completed.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he expects to complete his consideration of a special tax on the windfall profits of the clearing banks.
I have nothing to add to what my right hon. and learned Friend said in his Budget Statement.
The recent massive profits announced by the four leading banks and those of British Petroleum, which exceed £3 billion, exceed the total savings from public expenditure cuts. Is this the unacceptable face of capitalism? Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer urgently consider the TUC's call for a windfall tax on such obscene and exorbitant profits?
As a general proposition, one issue that divides the Chamber is that Conservative Members would like to see higher profits, in the interests of a healthy economy, whereas Opposition Members would like to see profits disappear down the plug hole. When such bank profits occur, partly as a side effect of Government policy, the question of special taxation measures relating to the windfall element will arise. It would be foolish to rush into hasty decisions which might have undesirable side effects.
Does not the Financial Secretary, with his well-known capacity for witch-hunting those on social security, realise that those profits are so exorbitant and unexpected that people will want to see whether this enthusiasm for taxation applies to the big boys as well as to the tiny ones? Will he consider taxing profits of £4,000 million when ordinary people are being grossly overtaxed?
I have already answered that question. The banks are taxed. In his Budget Statement the Chancellor made it clear that he would consider whether it would be appropriate to introduce a windfall tax on the windfall element of the banks' profits. It is absurd to talk about witch hunts. We are trying to ensure that the economy becomes healthier and that the balance between taxation and expenditure is right. We seek to diminish the public sector borrowing requirement, and that will be one of the main uses of revenue from North Sea oil. We also wish to bring down inflation. To talk in the emotive language that the hon. Gentleman has used is to demean the Chamber.
In view of the recent wage agreements negotiated by the clearing banks, does not my hon. Friend agree that there is a little bit of evidence to show that the clearing banks are a tiny bit monopolistic? Does he not think that it would be a good idea to look at that problem?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking at that problem. The pay increases that are being negotiated by the banks are a matter for them. However, they are fully aware of the consequences of unnecessarily high pay increases.
What is the Treasury definition of a " windfall "?
In this context, a " windfall " is something that accrues to one section of the business community, not as a result of its efforts but as a result of the side effects of specific Government policies. That is why we have a petroleum revenue tax.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that many of those windfall profits go back into industry and are of benefit to it? May I press my hon. Friend further about the differential rates which I earlier proposed? They may well be used by and be made available to industry. Is it not correct that many of the countries with which we compete—including some of our European colleagues—are adopting differential interest rates for the benefit of their industries?
Although I am not an expert on the subject, I understand that some countries have two-tier interest rates, with greater and lesser amounts of success. However, to shelter one sector of the economy at the expense of another would undermine the effectiveness of the Government's overall monetary policy. It would be subject to leakages, and it is highly unlikely that it would be effective.
Is not the Financial Secretary aware that the Government's failure to act demonstrates their fear of the City and of offending the Bank of England? Does he agree that there is no problem about taxing excess profits and that one could have an excess profits tax? If the hon. Gentleman were to introduce such a clause into the Finance Bill, we would support it.
There are considerable practical difficulties. If the right hon. Gentleman takes a little more time to reflect on the subject, he will, with his experience, appreciate that.
How does the Financial Secretary think that the public will react—in a climate of social security cuts, £l prescription charges and so on—when they see those bank profits? Does he accept that they arose as a direct result of Government policy and were not the result of demands for increased production? Does he further accept that even the Daily Mail found them unacceptable?
The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that bank profits tend to rise when profits in the rest of the economy are not doing well and when interest rates are rising. The reverse is also true. Bank profits tend to fall when the rest of the economy is doing well. One should look at the behaviour of bank profits and other profits over the cycle as a whole.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what circumstances would persuade him to narrow the gap between minimum lending rate and the 7 per cent. interest currently paid into the premium bonds prize fund.
New, more attractive terms of the prize fund have only just been announced.
Will the Minister at least spend a comparable sum on advertising index-linked retirement certificates— which currently yield 20 per cent.—to that which he spends on advertising premium bonds, which yield 7 per cent.?
We shall certainly take account of the hon. Gentleman's remarks and see whether we can boost the sales of other forms of saving certificates.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he is satisfied with the development of the money supply in the first quarter of 1980.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he is satisfied with the progress of the achievement of his monetary targets.
Recent figures suggest that the underlying rate of growth of sterling M3 is now well within the 7 to 11 per cent. target range.
Now that these figures appear to be much more optimistic, when will they have an effect on the rate of inflation?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has pointed out on a number of occasions, there is a well-established link between falls in the rate of growth of the money supply and falls in the rate of inflation. That is not mechanistic. There are variable time lags, but on the whole these lags tend to be about two years.
Obviously these figures are highly encouraging. Does my hon. Friend agree that the early implications suggest that the Government's strategy has laid the foundations from which we can look forward to perhaps the most urgent requirement of industry and the most useful thing that we can do for it, namely, a gradual reduction in the cost of borrowing money?
I entirely agree.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the Select Committee the other day that 2 per cent. must be added to the published figures of money supply to account for the distortions of the corset since the Government took office? Is he aware that in that case the Government have not met their monetary targets at any time in the last 12 months? That being so, why should anyone take the slighest notice of the fantasies in the medium-term plan?
As I have pointed out, there has been a sharp deceleration in the rate of growth of the money supply since my right hon. and learned Friend's measures last autumn. In the past five months, even taking into account the acceptance leak to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, the rate of growth of the money supply has been running at 9¾ per cent. a year.
Is the Minister aware that the Government's economic policy will mean many more days of action among workers who must defend their living standards against Government policies?
I can think of nothing more futile, and nothing more contrary to the interests of the working people of this country, than so-called days of action to which the hon. Member refers.
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the progress of discussions he has had for the creation of his proposed enterprise zones.
My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are currently consulting the local authorities named in the Government's policy document. The Government will make a final announcement about sites in the summer.
Is it not a measure of the interest in this proposal that local authorities up and down the country are clamouring to be designated as enterprise zones? In view of the substantial and exciting opportunities that these enterprise zones offer, will my right hon. Friend ensure that as soon as the sites have been selected every means of communication to business and industry is used to bring the opportunities home to those who make investment decisions?
The answer to both parts of my hon. Friend's question is " Yes ".
Is the Minister aware that unemployment in the Northern region is approaching 140,000 and that, in effect, that was once the national figure? If the Tyne-Wear area succeeds in getting one of these enterprise zones, would it not be more appropriate to rename it a resuscitation zone?
I had hoped that the hon. Member would be rather more charitable in welcoming this innovation.
Bank Of England
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he will meet the Governor of the Bank of England.
My right hon. and learned Friend expects to meet the Governor shortly.
When the Chancellor meets the Governor, will he discuss with him the Bank of England's own evidence from its financial model that the public sector borrowing requirement has only a small effect on the level of interest rates? Indeed, a change of £1,500 million affects interest rates by only 0.2 per cent. What will the Chancellor say to the Governor about that evidence?
In his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee a few days ago, the Govenor of the Bank of England stressed the importance of getting the public sector borrowing requirement down.
Retail Price Index
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what are the fiscal implications of the existing make-up of the retail price index.
The retail price index measures the rate of change of the prices of the goods and services that households buy; this necessarily includes price changes which are due to changes in indirect taxation.
The retail price index is sometimes referred to as the cost-of-living index. Does it make sense that drink and cigarettes, which some people claim contribute to dying rather than living, should be included in the cost-of-living index?
The composition of the retail price index is not directly under Government control, but the point is made.
Prime Minister (Engagements)
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 24 April.
This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and later met Mrs. Louisa Kennedy, the wife of one of the American hostages in Tehran. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, including one with a delegation from the city of Hull.
While the Prime Minister pursues her busy schedule, will she bear in mind that an extra 5p tax on a packet of cigarettes would have enabled the Government to increase child benefit by £1 instead of 75p? Will she accept that any loss of revenue caused by a diminution in smoking would easily have been compensated for by savings in the National Health Service?
Extra indirect tax works through straight away to the retail price index. Because so many social security benefits are linked to that index, that would put up public expenditure next year by a multiplier factor. That is one of the aspects that we must take into account when deciding the balance of the Budget.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the deplorable example of bath-plug economics, to which our attention was drawn in the press articles on the Isle of Grain power station closure yesterday and today? Can any industrial society survive a system in which 27 men can force the squandering of nearly £400 million of hard-earned public capital in this way? Does not this he at the heart of the discontent which some of us feel, in that the initiative that she is showing in this area has not been sufficiently robustly supported on the Benches next to her?
I agree that industrial relations on the Isle of Grain site for the new power station have been a disgrace, when some 27 laggers can virtually bring the whole place to a dead slow and then a stop and are being paid £4·60 bonus an hour. I agree that we need to look into industrial relations on this site and other sites of the same kind. We must also look into the economics of the construction of future power stations which can be so delayed and overrun like this one.
The Prime Minister referred to her discussions with Mrs. Kennedy, to whom we all give our sympathetic understanding. Is she aware that Mrs. Kennedy spoke on radio before she met the Prime Minister and made a statement to the effect that in no circumstances would those poor hostages support any military undertaking? In her discussions with Mrs. Kennedy, did the Prime Minister give her a similar impression, and will the right hon. Lady and her Government bear it in mind?
I saw Mrs. Kennedy this morning, and I think that she is a wonderful and remarkable person. It is clear that both she and her husband, who is being held hostage, have considerable inner resources of strength that are seeing them through. I made it clear that we are anxious to support our friends, the United States, in what we are now being asked to do—to take further political action, and later economic action. We shall continue to support them in those endeavours.
If, in the course of today, my right hon. Friend considers the tactics that she will employ this weekend in Luxembourg, will she bear in mind that the essence of any genuine community must be the willingness of those who are strong and well off to help those who are less well off? Does she agree that at present we should be net beneficiaries and not net contributors? If my right hon. Friend cannot reach any such agreement, there is no Euro-fanatic in this country who will be able to persuade the British people that we belong to a genuine community.
The essence of partnership in any community is that all partners are entitled to an equitable deal. We are not getting an equitable deal at the moment. Because of that, we are requiring back large sums of the net contribution that we make. I still do not underestimate the difficulties of the task, but we must stick to our objective absolutely clearly.
While we wish the Prime Minister success in her endeavours at Luxembourg to recover this large sum of money—and we have given her steady support in this matter—will she, in view of the statement by President Giscard d'Estaing yesterday that this issue could not be settled in the absence of an agreement to increase farm prices, give an assurance that the position of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be fully supported and that no increase will be conceded by the British on prices for goods and commodities in surplus?
When that statement was made by the President of France and communicated to the meeting of Agriculture Ministers, my right hon. Friend made a pretty robust response—as only he can. He said that the agriculture price agreement would be dealt with, as it always has been, on merit. I have made it abundantly clear that we are certainly prepared to look at the other matters which have to be settled within the same time scale but that each of them must, nevertheless, continue to be considered on merit, and I shall stick to that viewpoint.
I take it that the Prime Minister wants the House to understand that there is no question of bargaining an increase in the farm price settlement on commodities that are in surplus against the budget.
I entirely agree. We are not bartering a settlement in one sphere against settlement in another. We are prepared to look at them all—certainly agricultural prices and sheepmeat—within the same time scale. I think that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends would say that if we expect Community members to help us to sort out our problems, we must equally expect to be ready to help them to sort out theirs. That is what a community is.
I do not know whether the right hon. Lady was trying to obfuscate the issue, but what she said at the end was not clear. We would like a clear answer from her on this matter. Is it the case that when she goes to Luxembourg—she will, of course, be discussing all these issues separately—she does not intend to yield on what is the common sense of the agricultural situation, namely, that commodities in surplus will not enjoy price increases this year?
" Yes " or " No".
I had hoped that we were at one on this and that after my last reply we were at one. May I repeat——
The right hon. Lady has thrown the towel in.
that we are not going to barter prices on the agricultural settlement against the budget. The agricultural settlement will be dealt with by the Agriculture Ministers in the ordinary way.
With all respect to the right hon. Lady, we have not had an answer to the question. The question is a simple one. Are we intending to stand firm on our position that commodities in surplus will not enjoy a price increase during the coming year?
The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to achieve something that he never achieved. What I will not do is to barter prices in the Agriculture Council against the budget. With all due respect, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can ask for more than that.
The House and the whole country will draw their own conclusions from that attempt to wriggle. However, the right hon. Lady is wrong, because we did achieve a freeze on surplus commodities. They did not enjoy any price increase. Will the right hon. Lady please withdraw her remarks on that?
It was a freeze on surplus commodities last year, negotiated by my right hon. Friend. In almost all years—I do not say in every one—the right hon. Gentleman negotiated increases in prices above those recommended by the Commission. I think——
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker——
I shall take the point of order later. I know what it is.
The country will be well aware that it was the right hon. Gentleman's Administration that left us with a net contribution of £1 billion.
During the course of the day, will my right hon. Friend consider what additional measures her Government, or this House, might take to give British trade unionists the opportunity to have a better level of leadership, the need for which has been exemplified by the performance during recent days of a certain Mr. Mostyn Evans, who signed a national agreement with British Leyland and then advised his membership that he would support action against that agreement, only to find his recommendation rejected in turn?
Over and above what we have provided for in the Employment Bill and the new Green Paper which will be coming out, I think that we must look to the trade unions to sort out their own internal problems. What we are trying to do is to give ordinary trade union members a greater say in union matters.
International Arms Sales (Brandt Commission Report)
asked the Prime Minister what is the policy of Her Majesty's Government regarding the views expressed by the Brandt Commission regarding taxation of international arms sales for the benefit of developing countries.
We are studying the detailed proposals of the Brandt Commission and will give our considered views soon.
On the principle of such a tax, does the Prime Minister agree or disagree with her right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and his distinguished co-signatories?
I looked at what the Brandt Commission said on this matter of a tax on armament exports and imports. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is a pretty cursory reference. It is a long way from a firm recommendation that there should be a tax on armaments. The reference is in the context of a tax on all exports and on all international trade. I could not suddenly out very much more study, and I do not come out with a decision on that with believe that those who sat on the Brand Commission would expect it.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that what ma; appear to be a developing country in one context is, in some manufacturing contexts, highly developed and may be competing, quite unfairly, with our own producers?
I accept what my hon. Friend says. There are great differences among developing countries One of our problems is that of competing with some of the trades of the newly developed countries, such as South Korea.
Prime Minister (Engagements)
asked the Prime Minister whether she will list her official engagements for 24 April.
I refer my hon, Friend to the reply which I gave earlier.
Will my right hon. Friend find time during the day to look at the information available on the increasing persecution in the Soviet Union of the so-called dissidents, who are, of course, people seeking to exercise fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of religion and speech and the right to emigrate? Will the Prime Minister consider how this information can best be made more widely available so that those who are considering going to the Soviet Union, for whatever reason, might be more aware of the extent of the denial of human rights there?
The latest information that I have was given during the course of a debate in this House. It was information compiled by a distinguished academic. It said that between August 1978 and March this year there were some 97 political trials in the Soviet Union, leading to over 200 severe sentences of imprisonment for political matters. As my hon. Friend knows, in addition to those matters, Sakharov has been sent to the town of Gorky, where he cannot communicate with anyone. There is widespread persecution of minority groups in the Soviet Union, and that is endemic to the system.
Questions To Ministers
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With no disrespect to the Leader of the Opposition, may I put it to you that it is in the interests of Back Benchers on both sides of the House that some limit should be placed on the number of occasions on which any one of us can intervene? Today the Leader of the Opposition was called no fewer than five times. I believe that the majority of hon. Members would agree with what I have said.
Further to. that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that if the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister were to answer a simple question there would be no need for my right hon. Friend to intervene on so many occasions?
The House knows that I have often said that I would give extra latitude to the Leader of the Opposition. It is not often that he intervenes on five occasions.
(Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)
Well, the Leader of the House can count better than I can. How- even, the House knows that that extra latitude is given. I know that normally the right hon. Gentleman is aware that his own hon. Friends wish to intervene.
He kept me from speaking, but I am not complaining.
That makes me feel at home with the hon. Gentleman.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You mentioned the right hon. Gentleman's own supporters. Is not there something to be said for your taking the view that if the Leader of the Opposition rises five times in succession five Conservative Members might then be called?
That is an interesting suggestion.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I suggest that one can avoid both those problems if, when the Leader of the Opposition is minded to repeat his question a number of times, he could intervene towards the end of Prime Minister's Question Time so that Back Benchers can get in their questions and so that he is able to receive the same answer several times?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition had to persist in his question because the Prime Minister evaded the answer?
Order. This will get us nowhere. It is all a matter of good sense and patience, and give and take. It is not often that the Leader of the Opposition intervenes five times, although it may have happened before.
I see that the Leader of the House has counted five.
During business questions.
Oh, I see. We are talking on a different level.
asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the return of our ambassador from Saudi Arabia.
Our ambassador has been asked to leave by the Saudi authorities, as a direct result of the damage caused to the relationship between our two Governments by the film "Death of a Princess ", which was shown by ATV on 9 April. It might be helpful to the House for me to set out the course of events which led to the Saudi request that our ambassador should return home.On 3 April, the Saudi Foreign Minister summoned our chargé d'affaires in Jedda to tell him of his Government's concern about the film and to warn of the very serious consequences which could ensue for our relations. In the light of this message, I recalled our ambassador, Mr. James Craig, from leave, and he returned to Saudi Arabia with messages from my right hon. and noble Friend and myself. We stressed that the British Government would regret it deeply if our close relations with the kingdom were damaged by an event for which neither Government were responsible. I should like to take this opportunity to reiterate that expression of regret. After the film was shown, there was considerable press comment, and the Saudi embassy in London issued a statement which was highly critical of the film and ATV. There has been widespread protest from all over the Arab and Muslim world, and attention has focused on plans to show the film in other Western countries. Yesterday, the Saudi Foreign Minister told our ambassador that his Government had re-evaluated Anglo-Saudi relations and decided that it was not proper to maintain them at their present level. They would therefore not proceed with the despatch of their ambassador designate to London and they would have to ask our ambassador to leave for the time being. The Saudi authorities have also made it clear that a visit by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which had been planned for 30 April, would no longer be appropriate, and other high-level visits have been cancelled. I should like to stress once again that the Government attach very great importance to our relations with Saudi Arabia, and we regret that they should have been damaged in this way by an incident outside our control. We have a close political and economic relationship from which we both benefit. There is a community of about 30,000 British people working in Saudi Arabia. We share a common concern that the vital Gulf area should develop in stability and peace without interference from outside Powers. In view of present external threats to the area, we should be drawing closer together, not drifting apart. The Government hope and believe that with good will on both sides the present misunderstanding can be overcome and the normal course of relations resumed. The wide range of bilateral contacts will not be interrupted on our side and I hope that British citizens working in Saudi Arabia and British business visitors will not be deterred by these events. We wish to see the minimum disruption in our relations and a speedy return to the friendship which has characterised them in the past.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in an oil complex area such as West Lothian many of the families of the 30,000 reside? What assurances can be give to those families?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, but we have no reason to believe that as a result of what has happened the presence of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and other British subjects is any less welcome than it was before this latest development. As he will be aware, this incident does not mean the end of diplomatic relations. We have recently increased the number of consular staff to serve the increasing expatriate community, and the departure of our ambassador will not affect the staffing of the embassy or the consular and commercial services which it has always been able to provide.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this incident would be damaging enough in its own right but that, when seen against the background of the serious situations in Iran and Afghanistan, it is a matter of the gravest importance that our relations should now be damaged with the most important of the Arab oil States? In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend consider whether it would be wise for him personally to seek to visit Saudi Arabia for the purpose of discussing Anglo-Saudi relations with the Government of that country? Does he further agree that one of the conditions of freedom of the press, which we all support, is that there should be responsibility of the media, too?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that this incident, which would have been regrettable at any time, is particularly regrettable in the light of events in Iran and Afghanistan. Obviously we shall do all on our side to try to make this interlude in our relations as short as possible. As at present advised, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to go, but any other member of the Government and myself are at all times ready to do what we can to bring this disruption to an end.I agree entirely that we have freedom of communications in this country with which the Government, like, I trust, other Governments, have been careful not to interfere. That must be balanced on the other side, I agree, by a degree of responsibility by those who make films that are shown abroad.
While endorsing the wish for continued close relations with Saudi Arabia, may I ask whether the Lord Privy Seal will take every opportunity to make plain to the Saudi Government that the press and television in this country are not subject to ministerial dictation? While we should, and do, respect the cultural traditions of their country, we expect an equal respect for our own, of which freedom of the press and opinion is a vital part.
I agree with that. We have made clear to the Saudi Government from the word "go", and before the film was shown, that we do not control the media in this country and have no wish to do so.
The knees of the right hon. Gentleman's trousers are worn out.
The hon. Gentleman shows his characteristic ignorance.We all applaud the freedom of the press, but the House will no doubt be aware that this film is subject to considerable criticism. Those who saw it will be aware of that. Mrs. Penelope Mortimer, who cannot be accused of having prejudices reflecting those on the Government side of the House, wrote a letter to the New Statesman pointing out that the film is open to objection. The whole genre is something to which the IBA and the BBC should be giving considerable attention. The dressing up of alleged fact in fiction is not only objectionable to our foreign relations but strongly objectionable in films relating to this country.
Order. This is an extension of Question Time. I shall call two more hon. Members from each side.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this regrettable episode—it is everyone's hope that in British and Arab interests its effect will soon be overcome—will not interfere with the proposed British and European initiative in the Middle East, which will do much to reassure countries there of our interest and friendship?
This will not have a general effect on our foreign policy, although it would be idle to deny, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, that a lowering of relations between us and one of the most important countries in the Middle East is a setback. We shall try to see that it lasts for as short a time as possible.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the irresponsibility and the self-interest of some of the bright boys of the media, both in television and in the public prints, who make political attacks under the guise of entertainment, frequently damage British interests and, indeed, Western interests?
Like most hon. Members, I am not a television critic; I do not watch much of it. I did, however, make it my business to watch this film. I believe that the so-called dramatisation, or fictionalisation, of alleged fact and history is extremely dangerous and extremely misleading. It is a matter to which the broadcasting authorities must give close attention.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us on the Government Benches would wish to apologise to the Saudi Arabian Government and to the Saudi Arabian Royal Family for the insult and discourtesy shown to them in this film? Is he further aware that the producer of the film, Anthony Thomas, has a history of producing inaccurate and biased films? Will he make approaches to the Independent Broadcasting Authority to ensure that the Left wingers do not have the power to undermine the best interests of the United Kingdom?
There were undoubtedly incidents in the film, as we know from Mrs. Penelope Mortimer, that had virtually no factual basis at all and were based on innuendo and rumour. They should not have been shown. On the other hand, I do not think that it is for the House to make an apology for something for which it has no responsibility. Nor do I think it right to make representations to the Independent Broadcasting Authority. I have no doubt that it will have taken note of what has happened arising from this incident.
Would not the Lord Privy Seal agree that most of the comment this afternoon has made a bad situation worse? Instead of indulging in the kind of character assassination heard from both sides of the House in the last few minutes, it might simply be pointed out to the Saudi authorities that legislation is going through the House at the moment that would allow an individual, including a Saudi, recourse to a tribunal of investigation if he claimed that a film had maligned him in any way.
I am totally against character assassination. I think, however, that the Saudi Government at present would take limited comfort from what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Order. I remind the House that after the Business Statement, there is to be another statement, and private business begins at 7 pm. In the scheduled three-hour debate on the cost of living, which will now last less than three hours, there are four Front-Bench speakers. We need to try to make business questions as short as possible.
Business Of The House
Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?
The business for next week is as followsMONDAY 28 APRIL AND TUESDAY 29 APRIL—Debate on the statement on the Defence Estimates 1980, Cmnd. 7826. At the end on Tuesday, motion on the Census Order. WEDNESDAY 30 APRIL—Completion of remaining stages of the Employment Bill. Consideration of Lords amendments to the British Aerospace Bill. THURSDAY 1 MAY—Supply [16th Alloted Day]: Debate on a motion to take note of the 1st to 6th reports from the Committee of Public Accounts in Session 1978–79 and the related Treasury minute, and of the First to Seventh and Tenth reports in this Session, and the related Treasury minutes and Northern Ireland Department memorandum. FRIDAY 2 MAY—A debate on London, which will arise on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Has the Leader of the House anything to say about a debate on the Brandt report and the prospect of a public expenditure debate before we reach the Finance Bill?
In relation to the debate on the Brandt report, as I indicated last week, we should have a debate in Government time. I have noticed the important motion on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brockle-bank-Fowler) and Members of other parties.
[ That this House welcomes the publication of the report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, under the Chairmanship of Willy Brandt; values its assessment of the growing interdependence of industrialised and developing countries; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to make a serious study of its recommendations and provide time for a debate on this subject at the earliest possible opportunity.]
They want a debate before the summit in June. I shall use my best endeavours to see that the request is fulfilled.
With regard to the question of a public expenditure White Paper debate, my attitude remains what it has always been. As I indicated last week on at least five occasions and a variety of levels, I wish to accommodate the right hon. Gentleman. We need also, for the convenience of the House, to have the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee available before the debate. This is not strictly next week's business. I can, however, tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have approached my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who has indicated that the report will be available in time for a debate, probably in the week after next. I should like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his help. I hope that this will satisfy everyone in the House for a short time.
I hope that I shall not have to get up five times again.
We should be thankful for large mercies.
Will my right hon. Friend answer the very simple question: why are we not to debate civil defence at the same time as we debate the defence White Paper? It seems a great mistake that we should not have the promised White Paper on civil defence so that it can be debated conjointly with the documents on defence. The defence of this country has to be a seamless robe. To discuss overseas defence without discussion of civil defence seems a mistake. Can we do anything to remedy this situation?
It is customary for the Defence Estimates to be taken in this way. I concede that civil defence is relevant to these debates. Subject to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, perhaps it will be possible for reference to be made to the issues to which my right hon. Friend naturally attaches importance.
Is the Leader of the House aware of the considerable anger of Opposition Members on Standing Committee B, which is dealing with the Social Security (No. 2) Bill, at the attitude of the Secretary of State for Social Services in introducing a Draconian sittings motion? Will he give time for a debate in the House on the constitutional point of having two Bills with interlocking provisions going through both Houses at the same time?
I understand the feelings that are aroused by the Social Security (No. 2) Bill, but I believe that it is in the interests of the members of the Committee to have as many occasions as possible to debate that important Bill. We must remember that it is necessary—for the upratings in child benefit, for example—that it should reach the statute book at the earliest possible opportunity. I cannot promise an early debate on the other point raised by the hon. Lady.
Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to give serious consideraton to the two related early-day motions 568 and 569, supported by myself and 70 of my right hon. and hon. Friends? When will the House have an opportunity to reach a decision on these two motions?
[ That (1) A Select Committee be appointed, to be called the Select Committee on Non-departmental Public Bodies, to examine the membership, operation, financing of, and appointments to, non-departmental public bodies appointed out of funds by Ministers of the Crown, and related matters; and the Committee shall consist of a maximum of 13 Members, of which the quorum shall be five;
(2) The Committee shall have power—
(3) Unless the House otherwise orders, all Members nominated to the Committee appointed under this Order shall continue to be members of the Committee for the remainder of this Parliament.]
[ That no Motion shall be made for the nomination of Members to serve on the Select Committee on Non-departmental Public Bodies, or for their discharge, unless:
Clearly the subject is important, but the view that I have consistently taken on the issue of further Committees and Sub-Committees is that we must have an opportunity to digest the extremely important changes which have been made with 12 departmentally related Committees and Sub-Committees. When those have settled down, then would be the time to look at the question again.
Bearing in mind the worsening world situation and reports that are today coming out of America that the Administration are worried about a slide towards war, would it not be as well to have a very early debate on our attitude so that hon. Members can put their points of view?
That is certainly true. I should have liked to have an early debate on foreign affairs if there were not so many other competing subjects. If, in this very grave situation, there should be a need for the House to be informed of developments, my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal will be freely available to make statements from the Dispatch Box.
Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that the evidence submitted to the Select Committee on defence by the Secretary of State for Defence and other representatives of the MoD will be available, albeit in draft form, prior to the defence debate on Monday and Tuesday?
I shall certainly look into that matter to see whether it is possible to make it available.
First, I call for an early debate on world affairs. Secondly, if we are not to get a decision or any recommendations from the Home Secretary on the May report on the conditions in our prisons, which are in a crisis situation, with nearly 45,000 people incarcerated in them, may we at least debate the situation, as it is soon likely to boil over?
I think that I have already answered the foreign affairs point raised by the hon. Gentleman.My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making a statement next week on his conclusions on the May report.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Select Committee on defence has produced a report, which will be published tomorrow, on the defence White Paper, which will be debated on Monday and Tuesday? Will he ensure that the report of the Select Committee, which was produced after intensive effort, is drawn to the attention of the House by a tag on the Order Paper on both days?
I was aware that the report was due to be published. On the public expenditure White Paper debate, I took the view that we should first have the report of the relevant Committees. Therefore, I have delayed this debate so that the report should be available. The previous question related to evidence, as I understood it. As we are having some trouble in the printing world, I did not want to give an undertaking that that evidence would be published.The suggestion of a tag is reasonable in view of the increased importance of these Committees. I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion and write to him.
Order. In the interests of the House, I shall call four hon. Members from either side. I hope that they will be brief, because the Supply day debate will be brief.
Bearing in mind the17 May deadline for European Community and, therefore, British sanctions against Iran, will my right hon. Friend say what plans the Govenment have for bringing legislation before the House? It is no use going to 17 May and then saying that we have to start legislation. When is the House to see it?My right hon. Friend may feel that he answered the question about a foreign affairs debate, but, if he did, he did not do it very well. It is essential that there be a debate on this serious matter before the 17 May deadline.
With regard to the point about legislation, if we will the end we must will the means. The Government have committed themselves to the declaration of a joint policy that legislation will be available, if necessary. We are looking into that matter at this moment. Of course, it would greatly facilitate matters if any legislation could be jointly agreed. No doubt conversations will be taking place through the usual channels. I was greatly encouraged to hear the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), in his usual statesmanlike and responsible way—that may be the kiss of death, but I cannot help it—laying down the Opposition's policy on this matter and lending their general support to a policy that is designed to avoid military action.
As many EEC legislative proposals recommended by the Scrutiny Committee for debate are not being debated, are the Government honouring their undertaking that these documents will be debated before decisions are reached in Brussels?
I have just seen the report, published today, of the Scrutiny Committee. I am looking into the important matters that have been raised. The vast majority of documents are debated, but the Committee instances a number of documents. I am looking into the question.
As there is widespread and conflicting speculation about the Government's intentions for the future of Northern Ireland, a situation of drift that acts as an impetus to the Provisional IRA in its campaign of terror, will the Government provide time to debate Northern Ireland, so that they can outline their proposals for the Province and a devolved Parliament or Assembly?
I am afraid that I do not have time for an early debate, but I hardly think it is necessary on the ground put forward by the hon. Gentleman, because it is absolutely clear that the Government's policy is that there will be no change made in the status of Northern Ireland and its link with the United Kingdom unless it is at the freely expressed wish of the majority of the population of Northern Ireland.
Will the right hon. Gentleman take note that the Secretary of State for Defence has before him a report from the steering committee on the future of the Royal naval dockyards, and that many hon. Members who have dockyards in their constituency will be inhibited if the report is not available for the defence debate on Monday and Tuesday?
I will certainly take up the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to see whether something can be done on an interim basis to assist the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in a similar position.
Will my right hon. Friend find time at an early date to make a statement on the matter of Sub-Committees for certain Select Committees of the House? In particular, is he aware that the Select Committee on Scottish affairs, with 13 members, has to cover five Departments and numerous agencies, and is finding its work impeded?
Yes, I am aware that there are certain problems arising from the Select Committees——
Get rid of them.
I shall certainly not get rid of them. It is the wish of the House that they should exist. I can tell the hon. Gentleman—who, incidentally, I welcome back—that the problems of the Select Committees are the problems of success. It is because they have so much work to do and are so effective and so many hon. Members wish to serve on them that there is a demand for further Sub-Committees, but I do not think that we can go further at the moment.
May I return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) about the serious situation that prevails in Standing Committee B? I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider his decision and to find time for an immediate debate. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has so arranged matters that the Official Report of the previous sitting and necessary regulations will not be made available to Opposition Members? Does he not consider this to be a disgraceful state of affairs in an important Committee whose deliberations affect millions of people?May we have an early debate?
I would consider it a serious matter if reports were not available. We are having printing difficulties. Late last night I was in touch with the Stationery Office, the printers, to ensure that, although printed copies of the reports might not be available, reproduced copies would be available, and those copies were produced for the Committee today. We are doing our best.
Will my right hon. Friend use his considerable charm and influence to secure an early debate on the possible British or European initiative to solve the Palestinian problem in the Middle East, the effects on that initiative of the showing of "Death of a Princess", and the question whether there is any possible Zionist connection between the two events?
I am appreciative of my hon. Friend's gracious remarks. I cannot, I am afraid, respond sufficiently because I simply do not have time for an early debate. I will draw the remarks of my hon. Friend to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that some weeks ago he promised the House that he would give an opportunity to discuss the Finniston report? As he has not included that debate in next week's business, when will the report be debated?
As the hon. Lady knows, the Finniston report raises a number of complicated issues on the future of the engineering industry, and the discussions are still going on. As soon as I am in a position to do so, I will make an opportunity for a debate. Meanwhile, I shall keep the hon. Lady apprised of developments.
May I return to the issue of the Social Security (No. 2) Bill? Is the Leader of the House aware that he has a duty to protect and represent all hon. Members on both sides of the House, and that the motion that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services forced through the Committee this morning means that the Committee will sit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons every week? It will therefore be impossible for Committee members to see the Official Report of the previous day's proceedings, and the drafting of amendments will be affected. There is no need for this haste.Will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend to ensure that the sittings motion protects the Opposition in their deliberations on an extremely controversial Bill? The right hon. Gentleman has a duty to see that we have fair representation and the necessary documentation, and I ask him to secure the withdrawal of this Draconian motion.
I accept the definition of my role which the right hon. Gentleman has given. I am in close touch with developments in the Committee. I have already said that I shall look into the question of printing. We will do all we can to see that the documents are available. I appreciate the intensity of feeling of the right hon. Gentleman, but it is important for various reasons that the Bill should get on to the statute book as soon as possible so that benefits can be paid.
Meanwhile, it is important that there should be the fullest possible discussion.
Social Security (No 2) Bill
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is your responsibility to protect the interests of minority groups in the House. The matter that has been raised very much affects the interests of the minority.The Social Security (No. 2) Bill is the first Bill for 50 years that provides for reductions in social insurance benefits. Yet, at the first sitting of the Committee, the Minister proposed a sittings motion which provided for open-ended sittings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Even if there were no printing difficulties, it would be physically impossible for the members of the Committee each day to have the report of proceedings of the previous sitting before them. This will render unintelligible the further proceedings of the Committee. Will you, Mr. Speaker, give an undertaking to inquire into this position in which Members are deprived of their right to documentation on successive days? If the Minister uses draconian measures in this way, we have a right to ask you for protection from this process.
The hon. Gentleman and the House are aware that there is no appeal to me from what happens in Standing Committee That is a matter for the Standing Committee and the Chairman of that Committee. The House has laid down those rules. I am bound by them and so are other hon. Members.
Local Elections (Government Statements)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, relating to the question of Government announcements to the House and the general public affecting particular local authorities during the period of the local elections. I had understood that in the Department of the Environment it was the custom on planning applications and appeals and on education matters and social service matters that decisions were not announced until after polling day. I had assumed that this was the reason for the long delay in the decision on the Tameside secondary reorganisation. The Secretary of State for Education and Science has announced the decision of the Birmingham education authority, which has a Conservative majority of one. Will you rule on the matter of the statements made by the Government in this period?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have no authority over the timing of statements by Ministers.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Referring back to your ruling on the Standing Committee——
Order. I must make clear to the House that I cannot enter into discussions about what happens in a Standing Committee. The newest of hon. Members must know by now that that is very much a part of our rules. I cannot be tempted along those lines.