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Issue Out Of The Consolidated Fund For The Year Ending 31 March 1981

Volume 990: debated on Monday 4 August 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

It will not be outwith your memory, Mr. Weatherill, that either last year or the year before we instituted an innovation when debating the various clauses of the Consolidated Fund Bill—a useful innovation started by Conservative Members when they were in opposition. It would be wrong if important precedents of that nature, started by Conservative Members who are now Ministers of the Crown, were not carried on. It is only because of habit that discussion of the Committee stage of the Bill has fallen into desuetude.

I wish to encourage hon. Members to follow that tradition once more because it is an important tradition—

Order. The only speeches in order in this debate are those concerned with the question whether the clause be affirmed or rejected, and nothing else.

Thank you for that intensely helpful intervention, Mr. Weathcrill. I should simply like to make a short speech because I know that a number of my colleagues are anxious to intervene. I do not want to detain the Committee for long in arguing that clause I should be rejected.

Is the hon. Gentleman able to tell the House what the clause actually says?

I am happy to respond to the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) who takes such a close interest in these debates on the Committee stage of the Consolidated Fund Bill. It would be for the convenience of the House if I were to read clause 1. I shall not detain the House with the preamble which begins

"Most Gracious Sovereign.
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects"
If I were to do so—

Order. That definitely would not be in order. We are discussing clause 1.

If I were to do that, I would be out of order. Clause 1 is headed

"Grant out of the Consolidated Fund".
It reads:
"The Treasury may issue out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom and apply towards making good the supply granted to Her Majesty for the service of the year ending on 31st March 1981 the sum of £41,601,455,200."
That is our money.

It is the taxpayers' money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) says. It is proper on these occasions to make out a case that this £ 41,000 million should not be spent and this clause should be rejected until hon. Members have heard a number of explanations from the Government about the way in which it is proposed to spend the money. This money refers to a wide number of headings—

Order. It is not in order to discuss how the money is to be spent. It is simply in order to discuss whether the clause is accepted or rejected. This is a very narrow debate. I warn the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who may seek to take part about that.

I recall very well the hour and a debate on this narrow clause in a previous year. I shall try to stick simply to the argument that this £ 41,000 million should not be spent and, for that reason, the clause rejected.

There is no question but that this is a lot of money. Even though this is a very narrow debate, it is nevertheless one hell of a lot of money. I am concerned about the way in which the money is being spent, even though it is only part of a narrow debate. I wonder whether it would help the Committee if my hon. Friend were to explain, as briefly as possible, some of the things on which this money is being spent. Has it anything to do with the money that is being wasted by the Minister for Social Security in appointing private investigators who have apparently discovered no loss or only losses of small amounts of money? Should that be part of our discussion?

I do not wish the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) to be tempted to follow that line. It is definitely not in order.

I agree, Mr. Weatherill, that if I were to follow my hon. Friend down that road I might stand in jeopardy of being called to order by your good self. It was, however, an interesting point and one that has enlightened the Committee a great deal. I am making a serious point. This Bill has come before us just before the Summer Recess, as it normally does. We have had a long debate on Second Reading and we now have to decide whether to accept or reject clause 1. Until we have had a series of explanations from the Treasury Bench about a number of economic matters, there is no way in which we can make up our minds properly as responsible Members whether it would be proper to accept the Clause—

10.45 am

Order. We had that long discussion throughout the night and it is not in order now to debate it again.

On a point of order. We have not yet actually discussed this £41,000 million at any time—

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. May I seek your guidance about the Committee stage of this Bill? The Order Paper seems to have omitted any reference to the remaining stages being taken today. That has limited the tabling of amendments. Would you facilitate manuscript amendments so that they can be debated in the usual way in Committee?

I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. If he looks carefully at the Order Paper, he will see that it definitely states that remaining stages may also be taken. On his second point, it is not in order to move amendments in Committee on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Thank you for your response to those points of order, Mr. Weatherill. You have said that this £41,601,455,200 has been adequately discussed on Second Reading.

I have not been here throughout the Second Reading debate, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison) has. I understand from him that he has never even heard this figure mentioned.

Whether it has been done by tradition or not in the past, having discussed the principle of the Bill on Second Reading—on a wide range of issues, I may say—in Committee, which no one wants to delay—

It has just crossed my mind that the Second Reading of a major Bill such as the Consolidated Fund Bill is normally debated for at least a day. This Bill is about a tremendous amount of money. The figure of £41,000 million is a lot of cash in anyone's terms. What worries me is that there is normally a gap of several days after Second Reading so that one can read Hansard and take account of what was said on Second Reading. I do not know why, but that is the way that this daft system works here. Now we have this debate on this tremendous pile of money—the biggest amount ever debated in the House of Commons. It is not the Government's money. As the Prime Minister constantly tells us, Governments have no money. It is all taxpayers' money. I represent some taxpayers in Bolsover and I want to know what has gone off in that Second Reading. Some of the scheduled debates did not take place. I know for a fact that my hon. Friend did not get a chance to speak. I have with me a list which indicates that many of the debates selected initially by Mr. Speaker have not taken place. Therefore, what we need to do—

Order. This has absolutely nothing to do with clause 1 of the Bill. What the hon. Member is saying is going back to what might have been said on Second Reading had he managed to catch the eye of the Chair.

Yes, it was an intervention. My hon. Friend will have a chance to reply to it or to make any further explanations that are deemed necessary by him. However, my point of order concerns the inability of Opposition Members to oppose. According to all the very important textbooks that Members read before they come here, we are supposed to have the ability to oppose at all times. We should not be gagged. We are here to oppose day in and day out, throughout every hour possible. That is what we are doing here.

What I am saying, on a point of order, is that I have not had a chance, nor has any hon. Member, to read what has happened on Second Reading. When such a lot of money as this is being spent, hon. Members have the right to know what has been said on Second Reading. What I am saying to you, Mr. Weatherill, on a point of order, is that surely, if we have not had a chance to read what has taken place, there ought to be a little more licence given when decisions are made about whether Members are in order. Let us face it: we have clause 1 of the Bill and a sum of £ 41,000 million, and here is a bloke from the Treasury on the Front Bench who has never even got up and said anything.

Order. The hon. Member rose on a point of order and is now making a speech. I think that I can help him by saving him from the need to say anything else. From early yesterday afternoon, and throughout the night, he has had the opportunity, if he had so wished, to be here and to have taken part in the debate. It is not in order to discuss those matters in any sense on the motion, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. You made a remark about my not being present. If you check my record, you will find that I am here more often than you have been—even when you were a Whip.

I did not say that the hon. Member was not present. I said that he had the opportunity.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Is it your opinion that the whole of this debate may be a mistake? On the Order Paper the motion merely says:

"Remaining stages may also be taken",
It is customary to take them on the day after the Second Reading. I should have thought that perhaps the Government Whips thought that they would get this through on the nod. It strikes me that the Government Whips may have made a terrible error.

Order. I think that we can clear up this whole matter, if I may enlighten the House. Earlier this afternoon we passed the business motion which made it perfectly in order for these remaining stages to be taken now.

I think that I was on my feet, Mr. Weatherill, before all that happened. I do not dispute what you have said. I accept completely that when the Government put on the Order Paper

"Remaining stases may also be taken",
that is a signal to Members that they should be here and ready to discuss these matters. However, I think that what is important on this issue is that, although there may be agreements between the two Front Benches when the Order Paper says
"Remaining stages may also be taken."
that cannot deprive Back Benchers of their right fully to discuss particular clauses during a Committee stage if that appears to be proper and the right thing to do. That is what I am attempting to do now, in urging the rejection of clause 1.

I have just been reading the business motion passed yesterday, on the nod, as it were. It says nothing about the necessity for the Treasury spokesman to rise to speak on clause 1 and tell us what is happening to this £41,000 million. All that it says is that the stages may be taken together. We are not disputing that. I am not, and nor are any of my hon. Friends, in dispute about that.

It is high time we had an explanation from the Treasury Bench. Why cannot the Minister explain where the money is going? It was not mentioned on Second Reading. One would expect a Treasury Bench spokesman who used to edit a Right-wing newspaper to jump up straight away and want to explain why all this money is being spent. There is nothing in the business motion that says that he cannot explain what the £41,000 million is all about. The taxpayers in Bolsover and throughout the country want to know.

Perhaps I can help the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) and the rest of the Committee if I read the following extract from "Erskine May":

"On the clauses dealing with the issue of money from the Consolidated Fund, subjects involving expenditure cannot be discussed".
On clause 1 stand part we can discuss only whether the clause stand part of the Bill.

I take that point, Mr. Weatherill. I do not dispute your ruling. All that I am trying to do, in the face of a number of points of order, is to argue that clause 1 should not stand part.

On a clause relating to expenditure of such magnitude, I should have expected an immediate intervention from the Treasury Branch. If I had not risen, the matter would have been dealt with on the nod. The Minister knows that perfectly well. He hoped that £41,601,455,200 would be passed on the nod, without any explanation from him of what it was all about.

Normally on Consolidated Fund Bills we have a full day's debate, starting at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, perhaps after statements, a few points of order and applications for Adjournment debates under Standing Order No. 9 by a few hon. Members with fish to fry. Then we get on to the Bill at around 4 o'clock, perhaps half-past four or 5 o'clock. But yesterday the Government chose also to put down another motion, which greatly reduced the amount of time available for us to discuss the Bill. There was a motion in the Prime Minister's name:

"That, at its rising on Friday, this House do adjourn till Monday 27th October"—
it sounds like a recess for Christmas as well—
"and that this House shall not adjourn on Friday until Mr. Speaker"—

Order. That has nothing to do with whether the clause stand part. We must confine ourselves wholly and exclusively to that.

We had better get it right. It was 9 pm as of Monday, but of course we are still on this day's sitting, which is Monday in theory, although the calendar says that it is Tuesday. There was nearly a vote at 9 pm. The point is that we did not start on the Bill until then. It was probably the shortest Consolidated Fund Bill Second Reading debate that we have had in the 10 years that I have been here.

It is a good idea to debate the clauses—very narrowly, in accordance with the Chairman's instructions—for the reason that I have just advanced, that we had no chance to start the debate until 9 o'clock last night. Therefore, we are making up some of the lost ground. It is extremely important that my hon. Friend gets on to the matter of the £41,000 million and the little bit extra. It is important that the taxpayer gets to know what is happening to the money. But this lousy Tory Government will not tell the British public what they are doing with the money. The Government tell me that they are cutting defence expenditure. I have been reading this morning—

Order. We cannot have interventions of this length. They are really speeches.

11 a.m.

Thank you, Mr. Weatherill. I found the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover most illuminating. However, I agree that if I were to follow my hon. Friend's line of argument I should be ruled out of order. I might stand in jeopardy—

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Is it not wholly improper for an hon. Member to make assumptions in advance about your rulings?

I resile from those words, Mr. Weatherill. I simply say that I might have been ruled out of order if I had gone down that particular road. I agree that all that the Committee is entitled to discuss and vote on is whether we accept that there shall be expenditure of the size stated in the Bill. That is the only matter that we are properly able to discuss. It is a question whether we accept the clause or reject it.

It is most difficult—although an effort is being made—to discuss this clause without discussing the words in it. The clause refers to the sum of £41,601,455,200. I believe that any other democratic assembly in the world would be astonished if it were to find that during the Committee stage of a Bill a Parliament of any kind accepted or rejected a clause this magnitude on the nod. That is what the Financial Secretary to the Treasury had been rather assuming. I took that to be his attitude, judging by his slightly sunken posture on the Government Front Bench.

It is absolutely proper that we should discuss this matter and I recommend to the Committee that this clause do not stand part of the Bill, for the following reasons. My first reason—and it is a traditional reason—is that it is quite impossible for us to come to a decision about whether it is proper to spend this money until we get much more information from the sedentary Financial Secretary about the context of the entire clause.

I agree with you Mr. Weatherill, that if I were to go into too great detail, or any detail at all, about the make-up of this £41,601,455,200—

My hon. Friend is quite right in rehearsing the ruling that the Chairman gave. The Chairman quoted from "Erskine May" and said that the subject of expenditure might not be discussed. There is every good reason, I should have thought, why the procedure under which that expenditure is authorised in the Bill should be discussed. That is not excluded by "Erskine May".

I thank my hon. Friend. His encyclopaedic knowledge of these matters is so much greater than mine that I am sure that the slight respite afforded by my brief remarks this morning will enable him to address the Committee on procedural matters. I hope that he does that.

Although I am not allowed to break down the sum and go into details—we are discussing the Consolidated Fund—the Committee is entitled to an explanation of the meaning of clause 1 from the Treasury Bench. If we do not get that explanation, Committee stages of Bills are turned into a farce. It has been traditional to pass these clauses on the nod, but a Government are now in power who want to scrutinise expenditure very closely.

I shall bring my remarks to a close very shortly, Mr. Weatherill, because many of my hon. Friends wish to speak on the clause and I do not want to stand in their way. However, before I finish I must stress that, on every stand part debate, Ministers normally explain what the clauses seek to achieve. If the Financial Secretary is minded to remain seated throughout this discussion, it will be a scandal.

Will my hon. Friend give way? There is another reason why we have departed, not from precedent but from the normal style of dealing with this part of the Bill. The procedure changed three of four years ago—

One morning three years ago, I heard the radio announcer say that the House was still sitting. We all know that that does not mean that every right hon. and hon. Member is here. That is a bit of a gimmick. It stated on the radio that we were breaking with precedent—

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill.

My hon. Friend has misquoted what was said on the radio. The announcer said that MPs had been up all night. That was not true. Only a few hon. Members had been up all night—

Order. It is not in order to discuss whether we have been up for one night, two nights or three nights. It is in order only to discuss whether we are to pass the clause. Perhaps it might be for the convenience of the House if I were to put the Question and then we could take a decision. The Question is, That clause 1 stand part of the Bill—

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I hope that you will not put the Question unless someone has moved and carried the closure which, somehow, I suspect they may be unable to do at the moment.

Perhaps I may continue my speech. I was in the process of drawing my remarks to a close when my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover made a useful interruption.

I had not quite finished it. The point I was trying to explain to my hon. Friend, who has been dealing with many matters in the past 24 hours—matters concerning the Attorney-General, and doing a splendid job in that regard—was that suddenly the Opposition, including the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary—I am not sure whether he is right honourable—

He is not, but he is trying hard.

At that time, the whole world seemed to be upside down. The radio stated that the House of Commons was debating the Committee stage of the Consolidated Fund Bill. At that time, I had been a Member of Parliament for seven years and knew that nothing like that had happened before. It was said that Labour Whips were searching for Labour Members to vote for the closure. You, Mr. Weatherill, probably remember the occasion. It was a maverick operation.

I remind the hon. Gentleman again that that has nothing to do with the question, That the clause stand part of the Bill. It is an abuse of our procedures to intervene at length on matters that we are not discussing.

A number of my hon. Friends wish to speak, and I am anxious to hear the Financial Secretary attempt to rebut my arguments.

It is unreasonable for the House to pass a clause involving £41,601 million without an explanation from the Government about the policies on which it is based.

Order. Before further interventions occur, I remind the Committee that it would not be in order for the Minister either to go into detail on the matter. The issue is simply whether clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.

It is unusual to have a clause stand part debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) reminded us, it is not unique. This is the third occasion on which we have had such a debate since my hon. Friend has been in the House. It is not the second. When such a debate takes place, the Opposition consider that there is a good reason for it. The reason today must be well known to the Government.

The debate and closure on Second Reading are matters of tradition. During the debate hon. Members endeavour to raise items of specific expenditure.

I wish to deal with the principle of appropriation in clause 1. Similar debates took place in 1977, 1971 and 1961. The occasion before that was in 1913. It appears that such debates are occurring with increasing rapidity. In 1961 the late Hugh Gaitskell participated in the debate, as did Lord Diamond. In 1977, the then Conservative Opposition used the opportunity to force the Prime Minister to come to the House to make a statement on security. No doubt that was an important occasion and serious matters required the attendance of the Prime Minister. I was not here, so I cannot comment too closely on what took place in 1977. But hon. Members succeeded in getting the Prime Minister to come to the House. I have read the report of the debate.

11.15 am

We are all very unhappy that my hon. Friend was not with us on that occasion. However, I was here on that occasion. We had a considerable debate, largely raised by Opposition Members in Committee on the Consolidated Fund Bill. It was directed, through intermittent points of order, to whether the Prime Minister should come to the House and make a statement about security. I think that we have been impeccable today in keeping within the rules of order. My hon. Friend has properly cited precedents for a debate on clause 1 stand part. Although he was not with us in 1977, we would have wished him to be present. However, as I said, he is correct in citing these precedents.

Order. I was also present on that occasion. My predecessor ruled, as I have ruled, and I repeat yet again, that hon. Members may discuss only whether the clause should stand part of the Bill. They may not go into detail of any kind.

I accept your ruling, Mr. Weatherill. I was only seeking to explain why I do not think that it lies in the Government's mouth to complain about Opposition Members seeking a debate on clause 1 stand part.

Turning to the clause, I should express disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price). I am sad to express such disagreement in view of his kind remarks about me. However, I disagree with my hon. Friend in opposing clause 1. I take this step, unusual as it may be from these Benches, especially as I sometimes act as a Whip for the Opposition, because I regard this as an important clause. It may surprise my hon. Friends that I step forward to support the Government, but, as I said, this is an important clause. Clearly, I shall have to give my reasons for taking this most unusual course of suggesting that the Opposition would be ill-advised to vote against the clause.

I must correct my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West on one point. He was mistaken when he said that clause 1 provides that money "shall" be spent. It does not say that money "shall" be spent or made available. It say that money "may" be made available. There is a world of difference between the interpretation of "shall" and that of "may". I shall not take up the time of the House by reiterating the admirable explanation of the meaning of "may" put forward in the debate in 1961 by some of our most illustrious predecessors. I shall turn straight away to the effect of not approving the clause.

As I understand it—if I am wrong, I hope that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will correct me—if we do not approve clause 1, a number of people who are employed by the Government will not be paid because the money will not be available for them to be paid. My hon. Friends might take pleasure in the prospect of some Ministers not being paid. However, it would affect others as well. Even though there seemed to be some clash between you, Mr. Weatherill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, when I think he was seeking to presume a little on the prerogative of the Chair, I think that he would be most unhappy if you were not paid. Yet, as I understand it, if we do not approve clause 1, the Chairman will not be paid. It would not stop there. No doubt hon. Members would not be paid, but they presumably would have savings on which they could draw. The effect of not approving the clause will be that thousands of civil servants will not be paid.

Is it not possible that the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister will get her way in that, instead of being defeated in the Cabinet, if the clause were not passed, teachers would not be paid either?

I had considered that point, but I decided not to make it because I believe that teachers are paid by local government and I am not quite clear—

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not now go into any detail because, as I have already pointed out in quoting from Erskine May, that is not in order.

Thank you, Mr. Weatherill. I hope that you will bring me back to the paths of righteousness if I stray again. I took the precaution of reading "Erskine May" before this debate began. However, it is the first time that I have read that section of "Erskine May", because I have never taken part in the Committee stage debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill before. Therefore, it is possible that I shall stray out of order, but I am sure that you will bring me back if I do. I thank you for that correction.

I agree with my hon. Friend's argument that the effect of clause 1 would be to make possible certain disbursements that are highly desirable. That is an argument in favour of the clause standing part of the Bill. However, is my hon. Friend really saying that because of that we should overlook the possibility that some of the disbursements may not be so desirable or not desirable at all? Does my hon. Friend think that we ought to be in favour of the clause standing part even though, apparently, we are not allowed to refer to any of the undesirable possibilities that may arise as a result of the clause?

I do not take that view. I believe that clause 1, like many other matters that we must consider in this House, is like the curate's egg. It is good in parts and it is bad in parts. It is for each hon. Member to make up his own mind about whether on balance the good outweighs the bad. In my view, the effect of not agreeing that clause 1 should stand part of the Bill would be very serious on a lot of people who can ill-afford it. However, Mr. Weatherill, I shall not describe them. Indeed, in some cases the effect would be tragic. I therefore urge my hon. Friends not to pursue their opposition to the Government's policies to the point of voting aganst clause 1.

I listened closely to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), who no doubt will be able to explain more fully why he felt it necessary to propose the rejection of the clause. There is no doubt that this is a fine balance. Like most things in life, we must find the right balance. As I understood it, my hon. Friend was saying that we should reject the clause on the basis that no explanation has been given. It could be that at by doing that, and by defeating the Government, we would throw out the baby with the bath water. I am not sure who concocted that phrase.

Yes, Mr. Weatherill. I suppose that on every occasion the Chairman is bound to be right. I was saying that perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) did not get the gist of what my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West was saying. He said that he wants the money to be spent on all the worthwhile projects contained within this massive amount of money—£41,000 million—which ought to be scrutinised, especially as the Government came to power on the basis of scrutinising every little item and every penny of taxpayers' money.

Of course, the Government have no money. It all belongs to the taxpayers, as we are constantly reminded. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West was asking us to reject the clause on the basis that we have not received a proper explanation. It is that kind of balance. I do not believe that there is that much difference between my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford is now making a fine contribution as to why this matter should be discussed in the way that it is being discussed, and why these precedents are being broken more often. That is really a tautology—

As you know, Mr. Weatherill, I cannot answer my hon. Friend in detail. I listened most closely to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West and I felt that he was wrong in arguing that we should not pass the clause on the ground that there has not been adequate discussion of the detail. I understand that whenever we have a Second Reading of a Consolidated Fund Bill, the closure is moved and the Government bring in their Back Benchers in order to make it effective, so that they can move on to the next stage of the Bill.

I recognise that many Conservative Members have stayed through the night and come in to support their Government, and I respect them for it. In view of what happens every year, I do not think it fair to say that we shall vote against the clause on the ground that there has not been an adequate opportunity to explore the details. I agree that there has not been an adequate opportunity to explore the details, but it would be going too far in pursuit of that argument to vote against the clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover is mistaken in thinking that the quotation about throwing out the baby with the bath water came from the midwife. It came from that most prolific source of quotations, the one always listed as Anon. Anon has been responsible for most of the famous quotations.

I must defend my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) from the assertion that he said that the phrase was invented by a midwife. That assertion came from the Deputy Chief Opposition Whip.

I make no comment on the Deputy Chief Whip's learning. All I can say is that, from my knowledge of English literature, it comes from Anon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover is right in saying that it is a matter of balance. In the Labour Party we are accustomed to taking our decisions, at the end of a closely argued debate, on a matter of balance. I do not declare myself to be in total opposition to my hon. Friends. I am simply saying that on balance it would be wrong to throw out the good parts of Government expenditure as well as the bad parts. There are, of course, some items to which they would object. They could explain their objections if we were able to debate the matter, but that is not possible. It is not possible to amend the Bill and take out the things with which we disagree. We have to make up our minds on balance whether it is right or wrong to vote for the clause.

If we accept the principle that there are good and bad parts and that the good parts can be implemented, is it not a fact that as years go by the Government of the day will always implement things without being questioned in the House of Commons? Is it not vital that the Government should come to this Chamber to discuss their spending? Now that we have some new young lads in the Chamber, would it not be worth while to throw it out, so that we can show that we can make any Government accountable to this Chamber for their spending—

Order. It is not in order to discuss the good parts or the bad parts. It is in order only to discuss clause 1 stand part.

I understand that, Mr. Weatherill, and I was not intending to pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Welsh).

It is not only people who would not be paid. Most important of all, many sections of industry would suffer if we did not approve the clause. It comes ill from my hon. Friends, as well as from Conservative Members, to discuss the possibility of not providing the money when all through the night hon. Members on both sides were trying to catch Mr. Speaker's eye in order to draw attention to the tremendous problems faced by British industry today. If we do not—

Order. I am very sorry to keep interrupting, but it is a fact that the hon. Member is now seeking to discuss subject matters. He may not do that. Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if, when the hon. Gentleman sits down, I put the Question, so that we can come to a conclusion about it, whether the clause is passed or not.

11.30 a.m.

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Will you be kind enough, Mr. Weatherill, to clarify for my benefit, if not for the benefit of other hon. Members, the ruling that you have given based on the extracts that you have read from "Erskine May"? It seems that there is some lack of clarity around the edges of the quotations and around, if I may say so, with respect, the edges of your ruling.

You say, Mr. Weatherill, that we are entitled to discuss only whether the clause should stand part of the Bill. An hon. Member may argue that in his view the clause should stand part of the Bill or that it should not. It is manifestly inconceivable that one should advance either of those arguments without adducing the reason for the argument, without adducing the considerations that lead one to decide either that one should or should not support the proposition.

It is impossible to argue, Mr. Weatherill, whether the clause should stand part of the Bill without saying why it should. Manifestly that argument is not ruled out by the proposition that detail may not be discussed. Indeed, the very word "detail" is one that is incapable of definition. At what stage when moving down the scale from the general to the specific do we reach detail? If one argues that the sum is too great, is that a detail? If one argues that the sum is too small, is that a detail? If one argues that the sum covers items which it should not cover, is that a detail? If one argues that the sum does not include items which one thinks should be included, is that a detail? What does this mean?

Surely it is this sort of thing that brings the procedures of the House into contempt among the public. I know of no other assembly in the world, from the highest to the lowest, from the United Nations to the smallest parish council, in which one may discuss whether money should be spent but not mention on what it should be spent.

The hon. Gentleman has illustrated amply the point that I have been seeking to make in my interventions. In the debate on the Question, "That the clause stand part of the Bill", the Committee may either confirm or reject. It can do nothing else. No speeches will be in order that are not addressed to that Question.

As for the clauses dealing with the issue of moneys from the Consolidated Fund, subjects involving expenditure may not be discussed. That is a clear rule. I am bound by the rules of the House and I have no authority or power to change that. If a change is desired, there are other methods of doing it. However, those methods are not for this debate.

That is absolutely correct, Mr. Weatherill. However, I wish to address myself on this point of order to the remarks you made shortly before my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) raised his point of order.

You were suggesting, Mr. Weatherill, putting the motion to the vote of your own volition. I respectfully submit, Mr. Weatherill, that that would be an unwise thing to do. If the Government Chief Whip chose to move the Closure and you chose to accept it, Mr. Weatherill, it might conceivably be the wish of my hon. Friends to divide the House to ascertain whether the Government have over 100 of their supporters in this place or whether some of them are attending to duties outside the House, possibly earning the money that the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister will not allow them to earn in the House.

It is the belief of some of us, Mr. Weatherill, that not all Government Members who voted in the earlier Division are in the Palace of Westminster. We would like an opportunity to test that. With respect, Mr. Weatherill, it would be most unwise of you to put the Question to a vote without ascertaining whether the Government are capable of winning the closure on this debate.

That is not a matter for me. I suggested that as this was a narrow debate, the easiest way to decide whether clause 1 should stand part would be to put the Question. That is all that I suggested.

Order. It is in order for hon. Members to adduce reasons as to why the clause should not stand part. However, they must remain in order, and I shall remain rigid on that point.

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. You have drawn the attention of the House to the relevant passage in "Erskine May". At the beginning of the debate I raised a question about the specific authority required for the Committee stage to be taken. "Erskine May" points out that the Committee stage cannot be taken on the same day as Second Reading, without a resolution of the House. The resolution does not state that the remaining stages shall be taken. It says that those stages may be taken.

I should be grateful for your guidance, Mr. Weatherill, because it would seem that the guidance given in "Erskine May" is that the House should pass a resolution giving a clear indication that it wishes the Committee stage to be taken on the same day. That is not true of the business motion. It is simply a rough guide. Will you rule, Mr. Weatherill, that the business motion does not conform with the guidance laid down on page 747 of "Erskine May"?

I cannot do that. The hon. Member had an opportunity to raise this issue when the business motion was put. He did not take that opportunity. The House passed the business motion, which clearly states:

"more than one stage of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill may be proceeded with at this day's sitting."

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is learned in these matters, did not wish to oppose the business motion. At that point, he would not have wished to point out to the Government Chief Whip the error of his ways.

That does not involve a matter of order. We should be discussing clause 1 stand part. Let us get back to that.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. The fact that the business motion was passed and could have been debated does not affect the present position. If the business motion was defective in relation to the guidance given in "Erskine May", it remains so. I do not know whether the resolution was defective, but if it was, it would be irrelevant to the debate. If the proper authority, as laid down on page 747 of "Erskine May", did not apply, it does not apply now. I seek your guidance on that point.

Any resolution or motion that is passed by the House has been passed. We operate under that resolution.

I appreciate the way, Mr. Weatherill, in which you are pursuing your role as Chairman. I have read the record of what happened three years ago and I understand the difficulty. I have also taken the precaution of reading "Erskine May". If my hon. Friend's experience difficulty about whether or not they are in order, they should read pages 743 to 749 of "Erskine May".

I shall not pursue that suggestion. My hon. Friends can go to the Library and read it. In addition, they should read the edition of Hansard dated 28 July 1977. You have referred, Mr. Weatherill, to the possibility of putting this matter to the vote as soon as I finish speaking. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not."] I am glad to learn that I misunderstood. On that occasion the debate on clause 1 stand part took two and a half hours, from 11 am to 1.30 pm. That was after an hour of points of order by the then Opposition. Today we went straight into the debate on clause stand part.

On the last occasion, the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) drew attention to the amount of money involved in clause 1. He said that it was a large sum amounting to £22,000 million. On this occasion—

Order. It is not in order to discuss what happened in that year. I remind the hon. Gentleman that in those days I say where he is, so I know.

I was not seeking to discuss a debate in which, unfortunately, I did not participate, but I was drawing attention to what the hon. Member for Chingford said, because it is relevant to my argument. Clause 1 of the Bill states:

"The Treasury may issue out of the Consolidated Fund, and apply towards making good the supply granted to Her Majesty for the service of the year ending on 31st March 1981 the sum of £41,601,455,200."

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. My hon. Friend is only a year out. He would be in order if he discussed 1978 instead of 1977 because the Bill repeals three Acts. The most important of them involves £26 billion of the £41 billion and is the Appropriation Act 1978.

I must leave that to my hon. Friends in the hope that they will catch the Chair's eye.

The sum of money involved in the Bill is about £41 billion, or rounded to the nearest billion pounds, £42 billion. In 1977 the hon. Member for Chingford drew attention to the rate at which the sum was increasing. At that time the sum involved was £22 billion.

This is not the first but the second Consolidated Fund Bill that we have discussed in this Parliament. The previous Bill, which was passed on 27 July 1979, involved £31 billion. That is a remarkable rate of increase. The sum has risen from £31 billion to about £42 billion. That is an increase of one-third in 12 months under a Government who are committed to controlling public expenditure. The rate of increase is remarkable. In 1977 the hon. Member for Chingford drew attention to the debate in Committee in 1961 in which Mr. Gaitskell took part and which involved a much smaller sum.

The point that I am trying to make is that the sum involved is increasing at a remarkable rate. I shall vote for the clause because of its effect on many people. Nevertheless, I hope that the Treasury Minister will explain why the amount of money involved has increased by one-third in 12 months. I hope that the Minister will reply. I hope that he does not leave me to do all his job for him. I hope that he will explain the inflationary or deflationary effect of the Bill on the economy. That has been discussed in great detail in previous debates.

I do not presume that I have the expertise—

11.45 am

We do not wish to bandy about figures, but the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill last year provided for £31 billion, but this Bill provides for £42 billion. That is the point being made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis). We have heard about the balance—should we vote for or against the Bill? Some hon. Members may wish to abstain. They could be tormented to the point of abstention.

Are we sure about the figures? With an astronomical rate of inflation—which the Conservative Government were elected to control at a stroke, or whatever—can we be sure that £41 billion equates with the present position? Unemployment is rising astronomically, which means that about £7 billion is being expended on the unemployed—at least, that is what the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said. It might be a good idea if he came to the House and explained why he is out of line with Government policy. He said that it is costing £7 billion to finance the dole queue, out of a public sector borrowing requirement of £9 billion. He said that that is too high a price to pay for squeezing inflation out of the economy. Can we be sure that £41 billion is the correct figure? We need an explanation of that. Has it risen on the basis of increased unemployment and the massive number of liquidations and bankruptcies? We must try to extract from the Government whether based upon the escalating figures, they are satisfied that the figure is correct.

We are not discussing whether the £41 billion contains this, that or the other. I am asking whether we can be sure that the figure is correct. Is it up to date The Treasury is noted for being way out in its figures. I remember that a few years ago the previous Labour Government found that the Treasury was £5 billion out in the space of 12 months. The Treasury tends to run the show anyway, and it is beginning to get hold of the Government in various ways. At that time we should have debated the Consolidated Fund Bill to find out how far the figure was incorrect On the basis of that knowledge, we are now raising an important point. My hon. Friends the Members for Stechford and Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) have dealt with the matter from a different angle.

The hon. Gentleman is out of order. I remind the Committee that the House decided by a resolution on 6 June that this sum should be granted out of the Consolidated Fund. It is not in order for the Committee to attempt to go behind that resolution now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover put his finger on one reason for the dramatic increase in the sum that we are being asked to approve, namely, inflation which is now running at 20 per cent. There is bound to be a big increase in the amount of money provided in the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill. However, it is not only the effects of inflation that should be taken into account. My hon. Friend referred to inaccuracies in Treasury figures. He may remember that before the last general election we debated a Consolidated Fund Bill because there must be an Appropriation Act before Parliament is dissolved. On that occasion, the amount of money provided in the Bill—which became the first Appropriation Act of 1979—was £23 billion. By July, the figure had increased to £31 billion. Now it has nearly doubled to £42 billion. That is not only because of the effects of inflation—something else is happening. My hon. Friend is right to ask for an explanation. We may not receive that explanation today because it would involve the Minister in a great deal of detail. But I hope that at least he will talk in general terms about the totality of the gross figure of £42 billion.

I hope that the Minister will say what effect that sum will have on the economy. Will it be inflationary or deflationary? Nineteen years ago there was a long debate about the effect of a much smaller sum—

Before my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stetchford (Mr. Davis) leaves the topic raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), which is important when considering the figure under discussion, may I say that it is increasingly difficult to know whether this figure is correct. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover made the point—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now suggesting that the figure is not correct. I understand that just before I took the Chair the previous occupant had indicated that the House, by resolution, had approved this sum. Therefore, I do not propose to listen to argument about the correctness or otherwise of the sum.

On a point of order, Mr. Crawshaw. When you said just now that immediately before taking the Chair you heard the previous occupant say that the sum was in order because it had been approved by a resolution of the House, you will also recall that he gave a date in June. It is clear—such is this Government's lack of control of spending, and so on, despite all the cosmetic statements bandied about by the Prime Minister and her minions—that expenditure is completely out of control and money is being spent about which they are not at all sure. From June to the first week in August is a pretty long time, bearing in mind that the sum has already gone up by 30-odd per cent.

Order. The remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) are outside the scope of this debate. Let me make the position quite clear to the Committee. The relevant resolution was passed by the House on 31 July.

I have just been advised that reference is made in the orders to 31 July.

I do not intend to enter into an argument about that. I am telling the Committee that the resolution was passed by the House on 31 July.

Before my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover intervened with his point of order, I was about to make the point that I was not questioning the correctness of the sum which, as you rightly say, Mr. Crawshaw, has already been the subject of a resolution of the House. I have come here today to listen to the arguments being put forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Stetchford was making the point—and I wanted him to clarify it before he sat down—that, although we had agreed to a figure and were not arguing about it, in money terms the figure which we had agreed had become out of date to the tune of £2 million a day at the current rate of inflation since we last considered it.

Order. The amount was passed by the House, and that is the amount which the Committee is considering. We are not considering whether inflation had any bearing on it. We are considering the amount referred to in the original resolution.

Yes, we are discussing the amount referred to in the original resolution and, of course, we cannot amend that sum.

I shall not argue about the figure. However, bearing in mind the figure that we are discussing and bearing in mind what has been said about inflation and what this Government said they would do if they were elected—

The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) is now starting another argument altogether. We are debating the figure which was passed by a resolution of the House on 31 July. The Committee must keep to that figure.

I am not seeking to change the figure. We cannot change it, because it is already in the resolution, as you remind us, Mr. Crawshaw. However, we are entitled to debate whether this clause should stand part of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the principle of debating the clause is important, because it is clear that the House is discussing large, even astronomical, sums, which our procedures for examination and scrutiny are not keeping up with? Since the House is evolving procedures all the time, the fact that my hon. Friend is to vote in favour of clause 1 standing part of the Bill is not relevant and it is important that Back-Bench Members examine the clause and the arguments on the question whether it should stand part of the Bill, so that by raising the issues involved and by stopping the clause going through on the nod we shall produce pressure for better scrutiny to allow us to discuss the detail at some time in the future.

I accept the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying. There is a need to bring up to date the House's procedures on the scrutiny of Government expenditure. However, the amount that we are discussing has been established and, as the Chairman told us when he was in the Chair, the detail cannot be discussed now.

I repeat that I am not arguing about the figures; I am concerned about the principle of the matter. Many people outside the House will want to know where this sort of money—

Order. The hon. Gentleman may have a point of principle to raise, but all that we can discuss is whether we are to pass the amount contained in the clause. If the House wishes to change its procedures, that is a matter for the House, but as things stand the issue is whether we pass the figure in the clause. Other hon. Members may share the view of the hon. Member for Ashfield, but it is up to the House to change its procedures. I cannot change them today.

We have to discuss the merits of the sum contained in clause 1. I must advise my hon. Friends that they cannot raise matters of detail, desirable though that may be. We had an opportunity to discuss the detail during the Second Reading debate.

I do not want to discuss the details. Perhaps we have delved into matters that we should not have delved into, but that is neither here nor there. I am sure that the Clerk and the Chair will agree with the point that I am about to make.

We should have the ability to influence the Government sometimes. The Government have a majority of about 70 over the Labour Party and I am not saying that we can have a great influence, but there are occasions, though not many, when a few speeches in the House can register in the thick skulls of the Government. That does happen sometimes.

Within the narrow remit of the clause, we are saying that this is not the right time to be debating the matter. We ought to try to influence the Government, if not on this occasion at least on a future occasion, to bear in mind that the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill, containing such a mammoth amount of expenditure, ought to be examined in a different manner.

It could be that the upsurge of feeling among my hon. Friends who are trying to—

Order. I have heard the arguments that have been put forward. Possibly they are genuine arguments about the House's ability to question the Government.

They are genuine arguments, but I point out that the custom in the past—I accept that customs can be changed—has been that because the Committee stage went through on the nod—because people's salaries are involved—and clauses were not voted against, the House was given the opportunity to have numerous debates throughout the night on the Second Reading. That was the quid pro quo for the Committee stage being taken formally.

If the House thinks that that is wrong, it has the power to change the arrangements. But the House had had an all-night sitting, debating subjects of hon. Members' choice. If the House wants to change that pattern and to debate the items in the Consolidated Fund, it is within the power of the House to take such a decision. It is not within its power to do so now. The rules are clear. It is for the House to change those rules. If we had got rid of all the debates during the night, we could have been discussing these matters. That is the background. I hope that we can come to a decision on clause 1.

12 noon

Further to that point of order, Mr. Cranshaw. I wonder whether I can make a submission which I made to your predecessor in the Chair and to which he gave a reply directed to a point different from the one I submitted. His reply was immaculate but on a different point. Surely, the ruling that is laid down in "Erskine May" puts us all in a difficulty. The ruling is not easy to understand. It is clear from "Erskine May" that one must not discuss detail and that one can direct one's mind only to the question of considering whether one considers that clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.

In terms of any common sense in debate, one must surely give, if arguing in favour of the clause standing part of the Bill, the reasons for so arguing. If one is arguing against the proposal, like some of my hon. Friends, one must also give reasons. No hon. Member is fulfilling his duty if he gets up and says that he is in favour of the clause standing part of the Bill without giving any reason and merely declares "I am not going to tell you why. I am just in favour of it." Alternatively an hon Member might say "I am against the clause standing part of the Bill. I will not tell you why. I am just against it." That would be nonsensical. It would reduce this Mother of Parliaments to an absolute nonsense.

It is clear that an hon. Member must be able to say why he is taking the view he adopts. It is possible that in the course of doing so, he must not get down to the minutiae. I put it to you, with the deepest respect, Mr. Crawshaw, that an hon. Member cannot be prevented from giving his reasons.

My predecessor as Chairman answered that question in terms of what the Chair expects in these debates. So far as I am concerned, that stands at the present time. The hon. Gentleman says that hon. Members are in difficulty. The Chair is sometimes in difficulty in trying to keep hon. Members in order within the terms of this debating rule. Sometimes, hon. Members go out of order because they do not understand the rulings. At other times, there might be other reasons. I shall not suggest what those other reasons might be. As matters stand, this is the ruling by which the Chair is bound. I can only repeat what my predecessor in the Chair said. We can go on discussing this, but we shall get outside the rules of debate again for the reasons I have given. I therefore think that the debate should proceed.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Crawshaw. I should like to press you a little further. I am genuinely trying to get clarification. Does your ruling mean that an hon. Member is, or is not, entitled, to give the reasons why he is supporting or opposing the motion that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.

Hon. Members in Committee may argue to affirm or reject. I have made clear how this arises. It arises because of the history of the Consolidated Fund. I cannot say more than that. It is for the House to change its procedure. In the past, it has been the procedure that the House either affirms or rejects. In the House wants to change that situation it must do it by some ruling in the future.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Crawshaw. Some of us have spent most of the night in the Chamber awaiting debates on Second Reading, and now that we are in Committee you inform us that many of the points that we would have raised should have been raised overnight. These Benches are cluttered with hon. Members who have been waiting in the Lobby to speak in debates that were not called. Might it not be for you, as Deputy Speaker, along with Mr. Speaker, to recommend to the Whips on both sides that in future the Consolidated Fund Bill overnight debates should last until the early hours of the following afternoon? By doing that—

Order. I think that the hon. Member has a point, but it is not part of the debate now. What he is saying is merely a continuation of what I outlined to the House. I am sure that the House may wish to look into this problem and the question of how to deal with it, but at present the Chair can accept argument only on whether we pass or do not pass these provisions.

On a point of order. The appropriate passage in "Erskine May" says:

"On those clauses"—
that is, the clauses that we are discussing now—
"the object of which is to ensure the application of grants made by Parliament to the objects defined by the Supply resolutions, debate and amendment must be restricted to the principle of appropriaion."
Appropriation presumably is the way in which the money specified in clause 1 is allocated to the various Government services and Departments.

If that is so, is it not possible for us to discuss the areas in which the allocation is made rather than the specific services provided under that allocation? If that is so, the debate must be fairly wide.

If, as I hear the Financial Secretary chuntering from a sedentary position, it is not so, I should be grateful for some indication from the Chair of the extent to which appropriation has relevance in this connection, and of the ambit within which a discussion of the kind embraced by clause 1 may take place.

I do not propose to enter into a discussion on "appropriation". All I am saying as Chairman is that the custom of the House in the past, because of the procedure that we have adopted for dealing with this Fund, is that the Chair will not allow discussion of individual items or how they are arrived at. I have already said that if the House wishes to change the custom it is within the power of the House to do so. We cannot do it today.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Crawshaw. I take the point that the House has certain customs, but I had always distinguished in my mind, in the proceedings on the Floor of the House, between our customs, which are usually followed with the assent of the whole House, and the rules of order, which bind the Chair and the whole House. I put it to you, Mr. Crawshaw, that it is the rules of order, of procedure in Committee, which should bind the discussion now taking place, and not, as it were, some custom. We do not have a book of customs, except "Erskine May". "Erskine May" is some guide, but surely not every dot and comma of "Erskine May" has to be followed to the letter. Customs are flexible things, which we change from time to time over the years, whereas rules of order are rules of order.

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and to the other hon. Gentlemen. We are discussing clause 1. The Chair has made its point quite clear as to what is expected in this debate. Whether or not the Committee agrees, that is what the ruling is. All that we are doing now is discussing points of order, which is taking away the time of the Committee. I feel that we ought to move on now to put the Question on clause 1 to the vote.

On a point of order, Mr. Crawshaw. In any debate in the House of Commons the attempt is made to elucidate different positions as to why we agree or disagree about something. But also what happens in debates is that a catalyst is at work. It sometimes helps to change things, not necessarily on that day but on some other occasion. Because we do not have a written constitution, this place is littered with examples of debates on, perhaps, obscure issues, but out of which have arisen changes which have taken place later.

I put it to you, Mr. Crawshaw, that in the early 1970s we entered the Common Market, against the wishes of many of us, and that—

On a point of order, Mr. Crawshaw. You have referred to "Erskine May". I should like to draw your attention to page 746 and the chapter dealing with the debate on the Consolidated Fund and "Procedure in Committee". The second sentence says:

"On the clauses dealing with the issue of money from the Consolidated Fund, subjects involving expenditure cannot be discussed".
I should like your guidance on the word "subjects".

I take it, Mr. Crawshaw, that this means that detailed application of money, say, in the Home Office—the subject of the overnight debate that I was going to raise—for example, the spying at Men-worth Hill near Harrogate, that sort of detail, could not be raised. But surely the interpretation of this word in this section of "Erskine May" does not preclude comment, in discussing the expenditure in the clauses of the Bill, on the amount of money which goes to the Home Office as a whole, a lump sum, together with other subjects which add up to the total global sum.

I should like your guidance as to whether we are limited to discussing purely the global sum, whether we can mention the break-up into the separate sections of a global sum for the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, or whatever, or whether we can go down into the detail, or, if that is excluded from the debate, the detailed administrative costs of the Home Office or whatever.

I feel that I owe you an apology, Mr. Crawshaw. It was before you took the Chair, and when Mr. Weatherill was in the Chair—I see that he is now returning to the Chair—that I referred my hon. Friends to "Erskine May" in an attempt to be helpful.

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. We have had a ruling from your predecessor in the Chair, which was in accordance with "Erskine May", that in the debate on the Question, That the clause stand part of the Bill, we are entitled to discuss only appropriation. I was led to argue that in deciding to discuss appropriation, we were entitled to discuss the way in which the money was allocated. That received dissent from a sedentary position from the Financial Secretary, and the Chair suggested that we were entitled to talk only about the global figure. But in seeking a definition of what "appropriation" is within the meaning of our rules I am looking at page 704—

12.15 pm

I can easily help the hon. Gentleman. What he is really now raising is a point of order about clause 2, not clause 1. He will find that clause 2 deals with

"Appropriation of sums voted for supply services".
Clause 1 does not. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman would be in order to deal with appropriation on clause 2, but not on clause 1.

Before you came back into the Chair, Mr. Weatherill, I raised a point of order, when the Chair's interpretation seemed to be that it was not possible to debate the detailed application but that the global sum of each individual Department was debatable. Does that apply to clause 1 or clause 2?

On the contrary, the details are not debatable. The only matter that is debatable—I am sorry to repeat this, probably for the eighth or ninth time—is that clause 1 stand part of the Bill. The debate is as narrow as that, and I must ask the Committee to stick to it.

Does that mean, Mr. Weatherill, that, clause 1 having stood part of the Bill, we could discuss the appropriation of sums under clause 2? I ask only in order that we may know what to do on clause 1.

We are dealing with the Question, That clause 1 stand part of the Bill. When that question has been disposed of I shall propose the Question, That clause 2 stand part of the Bill.

Before I was interrupted by those points of order, Mr. Weatherill, I was in the middle of an apology to you for having referred my hon. Friends to "Erskine May" I now realise that that was a sad mistake. I was not seeking to encourage them to raise points of order; I hoped to avoid points of order. I very much regret that I had the opposite effect.

While you were out of the Chair Mr. Weatherill, a very serious point was made by Mr. Crawshaw. If I heard him correctly, he said that it was the precedent for the Committee stage to pass on the nod. In fact, there are precedents against that. It is certainly customary for the Committee stage to be a perfunctory affair, but there are also precedents for a debate when the Opposition have strong feelings—perhaps not connected with the Bill—and use this opportunity to impress their feelings upon the Government. It is an opportunity dear to the hearts of parliamentarians, and it has been used in the past.

In the way in which we conduct our business, it is important to protect this and similar occasions. They may appear like gimmicks to people outside the House, but they are ways in which we can impress our feelings upon the Government. That is what is happening today.

My. hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said that he hoped that debates in the House would influence the thinking of the people who currently occupy the Treasury. I thought that that was a very kind remark. Indeed, if it would not upset him too much, I would say that it was a positively moderate remark about the present—

Let us get this matter in the proper perspective before the Official Reporters start putting in things that I have not said. I was talking about the thick skulls of people opposite, for a start. That puts the matter in its proper context.

What I was saying generally was that there was a catalyst at work, in that in this place, on occasions—very rare—a debate about something or other can have a chain reaction resulting in changes taking place later. I was going on to explain that because we do not have a written constitution—it is like Johnny getting older every day; things change—

I am addressing the Chair. I always address the Chair. My right hon. Friend is suggesting that I am not addressing the Chair. You know full well, Mr. Weatherill, that I am addressing the Chair—I have been doing so all morning—

Order. I am very grateful, but I would far rather the hon. Gentleman addressed himself to clause 1—when I call him, and not in an intervention.

I was addressing my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) before he went any further along that road. He cannot really go on record and say that I am expecting the Conservatives suddenly to jump up and be full of realisation, and take account of what we are saying. That is not the point.

My point is that arising out of what has happened this morning it may well be that even the Clerks will look at "Erskine May" rather differently. We might get an understanding of what "narrow" means. I want to know whether "narrow", in terms of a narrow debate, means a little less than wide.

I am saying that the situation can be changed. I was going to say that there might be a metamorphosis. There, I have now said it. I am saying that words should not be put into my mouth. I do not think for a moment that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury cares two hoots about what I and my hon. Friends are saying, but there are some people who believe that £41,601,455,200—or nearly £42,000 million—

Order. I really cannot allow the hon. Member to make interventions that are full speeches. He jeopardises the opportunity that he may have to make a contribution later on.

I am sorry if I provoked my hon. Friend. I had no wish to sabotage his chances in other spheres in a few moments' time. I should be sorry if my description of him as kind, moderate or even soft on the Government got him into trouble elsewhere.

I am concerned with the amount of money specified in clause 1. I urge my hon. Friends to return to the point, which is clause 1. The question that faces us is whether we should vote that clause 1 stand part of the Bill or not. We are dealing with a large sum of money. It is so large that my hon. Friend could not even read it.

I am sorry to interrupt the even flow of my hon. Friend's speech. I hope that he will understand that I was listening hard to his earlier point. He thought that we should support the retention of clause 1. That is set against the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), who said that we should oppose clause 1 on principle.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend will comment on the difficulty that will be created if the Committee rejects clause 1. What are the implications for the rest of the Bill? Does the Bill fall, or do the other clauses stand on their own? We are in grave difficulty on that issue. Will my hon. Friend comment further?

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) has put his finger on an extremely important point. I was hoping that I would not be pressed on it because, as I understand it, the constitutional consequences of not voting for clause 1 stand part are extremely serious. As far as I am able to discover from my researches, the situation will be totally unprecedented in the annals of the House.

It was suggested, when similar clauses in other Appropriation Bills were being debated, that such a situation would abort the whole procedure and that the situation would be so serious that, apart from people not being paid, and industry not having bills paid, the Prime Minister, in all probability, would feel obliged to call a general election.

I was anxious to persuade my hon. Friends to vote for clause 1. However, in all honesty I must tell them that the situation might precipitate a general election. I realise that in saying that I shall probably persuade them to completely the opposite point of view to my own. Inciting them to vote against the Bill in the hope that they will precipitate a general election at the same time means that we shall lose the support of some of the tormented souls on the Conservative Benches who might have been persuaded to vote against the measure for reasons, perhaps, related to the control of public expenditure or other issues.

If a general election were precipitated it would have some beneficial effects.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) will allow me to finish my point I shall give way shortly. I hope to give way to him. I have given way to everybody else this morning. I am very open. I was about to explain that the consequences of having a general election at present would be most serious. However, the effects would not be bad, because many of us believe that the result of such an election would be that a Labour Government would be returned. We might then have a totally different policy not only for the economy but in other areas as well.

My hon. Friend raises a most interesting point concerning a general election and people voting against the clause. Is he aware that a number of Conservative hon. Members in marginal seats in Lancashire make it a practice of voting against the Government in the Lobbies on issues that are sometimes important but never central to Government policy, as in this case, and then return to their constituencies and inform the local press of what guts they have in standing up to the Government? The truth is that they sit like mice on the Government Benches and never say a word. Will my hon. Friend comment on the possibility of a general election against the background of that kind of activity? Does he agree that this is a particularly apt opportunity for these hon. Members to be flushed out'? This is a sensitive and important issue. It gives us an opportunity to establish the position of those hon. Members on a matter of importance to the Government.

I shall not go into that aspect, Mr. Weatherill, because I think that that would range outside the rules of order. If I were to digress in that direction, I should be much more concerned with the way in which Conservative Members with marginal seats in the West Midlands vote.

I know that I promised to give way to my hon. Friend. I ask him simply to contain his impatience for a moment longer.

We have to consider what would happen between the defeat of the clause and the general election that we envisage would follow. There would be a gap of several weeks during which people would be unable to obtain money. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to impose that fate on innocent people who tike no part in the political battles inside and outside the House. There is of course the Civil Contingencies Fund.

Surely my hon. Friend has not forgotten that a lot of people are not able to obtain money for several weeks at a time because of Government policy and are forced to put up with that. I refer to claimants whose benefits are delayed while snoopers go around investigating. Pensioners are kept waiting because of some mess-up at Newcastle. If a few more people suffered those discomfitures resulting from Government policy perhaps there would be such an outcry that the Government would start to put things right.

It is not only those people who would suffer. It is possible that the people who receive supplementary benefit would suffer, because they would be unable to obtain their money.

I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) that I would give way to him. I am sorry that I have not already done so.

If the Government were unable to pay out money, that would be most important. However, the Government have a numerical advantage and they could introduce a motion of confidence. No doubt Conservative Members will all go into the Lobby to support them.

Will my hon. Friend, when he has finished his remarks about the possibility of a general election, spell out the balance of advantage of passing or attempting to reject the clause in view of the circumstances that he outlined? I thought that he did not go into those circumstances fully enough. He referred to people who would be without money, but pensioners are subject to the imposition of an artificial 54-week year, and are deprived of money for two weeks. They are in limbo for an additional two weeks.

Would it be fair to put other people in that position, or should we vote for the clause? Will my hon. Friend deal with that when he has finished his remarks on the general election?

I had finished those remarks, perhaps because I was anticipating the outcome and assuming that it would be a Government whose policies I would support. A general election takes at least four weeks, so people would not be able to get money for a month or more.

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I was suggesting only that the Government had put people in the artificial position of being deprived of money by creating a 54-week year. I was not suggesting that they would be deprived only of two weeks' money. If we opposed clause 1, for what period does my hon. Friend consider that people would be deprived of money?

On the surface, for a period of at least three to four weeks. It could be more. However, there is a Civil Contingencies Fund.

Not only the people who depend on supplementary benefits would be affected. Those administering the DHSS would be. It would also precipitate a wave of bankruptcies in industry. It would be no good the Government's paying later if firms had in the meantime gone bankrupt. We should consider the consequences of that for trade union members.

The Civil Contingencies Fund was raised in 1977 by, I believe, the present Under-Secretary of State for Trade. The hon. Gentleman spoke at great length, and he was not interrupted as often as I have been today. The problem is that we do not know how much money is in that fund. I assume that it is not a bottomless purse. That knowledge may assist us in voting, and I hope that the Minister can tell us how much the fund contains. It is the hon. Gentleman's task to explain the consequences of the clause being defeated. No Government Back-Bench Member appears willing to support the Bill.

This is one of the grey areas of Parliament. We recognise that people depend on the money and small firms might be in difficulties if payments were withheld, but we wish to scrutinise the figures. The matter demonstrates how much small firms depend on Government support. Does my hon. Friend consider that it would be useful to divide the House in order to break with these patently daft traditions. It is a convention that we cannot talk about detailed expenditure in the Consolidated Fund Bill Committee, because that has been so since 1888. However, Parliament has to register a marker in the evolutionary process of change, which is necessary if we are to have proper accountability, bearing in mind the changes that have taken place since the nineteenth century, when the Consolidated Fund Bill was a nominal matter. Very much larger sums are paid out today.

I understand the purpose of my hon. Friend's intervention. He is making a strong case for saying "Let us have a general election to bring the matter to a head and then we shall sort out how Parliament discusses public expenditure." The end result would be a much better system for the scrutiny of public expenditure in the detail that my hon. Friend and I would like, but the weakness in his argument is that those who would pay the price for that reform, desirable though it is, would be the people who had not received their money in the meantime.

I am listening very closely to my hon. Friend's argument. He has gone through it with a fine-toothed comb. It is whether we should defeat the Government and prevent this £41,000 million, this huge sum of taxpayers' money—

It is nearly £42,000 million. My hon. Friend's argument, as I have grasped it, is that people will go without money. I do not think that would be the case. We know that there is a Civil Contingencies Fund. We are not too sure how much is in it. There might be more or less in it than some of us think. But that is not the argument for me. I know that the Government would attempt to reverse the position before the end of the long recess. They would attempt to put matters right. My hon. Friend will recall that in 1976 some of us refused to support the Labour Government when they were cutting public expenditure—

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that that is not in order on clause 1 stand part.

My point is that my hon. Friend wants to vote for clause 1 stand part because he is naturally worried about people not getting the money that they need—for example, the unemployed, whose numbers are growing massively, and nearly 10 million old-age pensioners who need every penny that they can get, including those two weeks that they will miss as a result of the Government inventing this new calendar.

Order. Would the hon. Gentleman care to seek to make a speech on that matter—

My hon. Friend ought to understand that the situation will not be as dramatic as he thinks. The Government will not allow this period. They might if they think that they can inflict harm on old-age pensioners, but they have a majority. They would come back. Therefore, it is not as dramatic as all that. But look at the prize. The prize would be that—

I thought that my hon. Friend at the end of his intervention was beginning to talk himself round to my point of view. In his opening remarks he seemed to be suggesting that the Government would put everything right. That is to display for the second time today an amazing degree of faith in the Government. There is no difference between us in our feelings for the people who would suffer as a result of defeating the clause. There may be some difference between us, certainly between myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley and possibly my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, on whether it is worth paying that price. The dilemma which faces people who want change is whether to press for that change to a point where they cause damage in the short term because in the long term the price is worth it. There is a great deal of truth in the old saying that in the long term everybody is dead. People live in the short term. We must be careful about defeating the clause. We must be given a firm assurance by the Minister—

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Could you seek the necessary information and tell us what has happened to the Government? Could it be that they are at this moment having a special meeting somewhere—a meeting of the 1922 Committee, or whatever it may be? Conservative Members have left the Chamber. This is important. My hon. Friend is making some valid points and all the Tory Members have gone. I know that they are not all lawyers, but a hell of a lot are. Where are they?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I noticed in the Members' Lobby a most unusual sight, because the Whips were together and were holding a sort of meeting to d;scuss tactics.

Order. What goes on in the Lobby or anywhere else in this building other than in this Chamber is not a matter for me.

Just a moment; we must get on. I ask for your assistance, Mr. Weatherill. I am trying to reach the main point of my speech.

Order. Let us return to reality. The hon. Gentleman is about to reach the main point of his speech. That must be concerned only with whether the clause should stand part of the Bill and should contain no detail whatever.

No, I shall not give way. I think that I shall incur your displeasure, Mr. Weatherill, if I keep giving way to my hon. Friends. I accept what you have said. We must talk about clause 1, which seeks to make it possible—because it uses the word "may" rather than "shall"—for the Government to make a certain sum of money available. I have discussed the effect of not voting for the clause.

I shall give way in a moment. I am concerned about the effect of not voting for the clause. That is why I have spoken, because I am anxious to persuade my hon. Friends—contrary to the view enunciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West—that it would be unwise to vote against clause 1. [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) says that he needs a lot of persuasion. I am trying in my humble way to do the job that should be done by Conservative Back Benchers. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has drawn attention to the fact that they are not in the Chamber. Indeed, if it goes on much longer like this I shall have to suggest to my hon. Friends that we cross the Chamber and occupy the Conservative Back Benches, because we seem to be doing the Government's job for them, general election or no general election. I would not expect my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover to come with me because I think that he is happier on this side of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South was anxious to intervene. As I have not given way often to him, I shall make an exception in his case.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene again. I asked earlier about the implications in the event of clause 1 being defeated and how that would affect the Bill. My hon. Friend answered in a very broad sense about a delay in payments to pensioners and so on, consequent upon a general election. Perhaps he will answer my question in a more limited sense. Let us suppose that the Committee were to defeat clause 1, with the rest of the Bill being allowed to stand as it is. What will be the implications then? Would the schedules fall? Does my hon. Friend think that the Government would have to withdraw the entire Bill and present another one, or does he think that the Bill as it stands, without clause 1, could continue?

That is the problem. As I understand it, the Bill cannot continue without clause 1. If I am mistaken, I hope that the Financial Secretary will intervene and correct me. It is my understanding that without clause 1 the Bill is neutered. That is why I urge my hon. Friends not to take the dramatic, drastic and extreme step of voting against clause 1.

The schedules would not fall. Schedules A and B relate to clause 2, and schedule C relates to clause 3. Therefore, they are not affected by clause 1. However, without clause 1 the whole purpose of the Bill is frustrated. In view of the damage that that would inflict, and the problems that that would pose for other people who are not concerned in the arguments of the main political parties in this country, that would be a mistake.

This is a balance which my hon. Friends must strike for them- selves. On the one hand, they can follow the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, who is so concerned about aspects that I shall not go into because they would be out of order as they involve the detail and not the principle of the expenditure of £42,000 million. He was so concerned about those and other matters that he was prepared not only to speak against clause 1 but to pursue his opposition to the Government to the point of going into the Lobby and voting against the clause. That is what concerns me. That would be a mistake.

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You very kindly mentioned the note of reality, Mr. Weatherill, and the way in which the speech had to be balanced. When we talk about voting against the clause, the likelihood is that we shall be defeated and the clause will remain part of the Bill.

Will my hon. Friend look at the reality of this and combine his remarks about the undesirability of the position that would arise if the clause were to be defeated with the desirability of striking a balance on whether we should vote, together with the necessity to establish the unsatisfactory nature of the Bill and the clause purely as a nominal procedural gesture? We could perhaps register our opposition by not declaring Tellers, so that we combine the best of both worlds.

Will my hon. Friend give his views, in relation to what he has just said about the removal of the clause, on the possibility of retaining it but emphasising our concern that the scrutiny is grossly inadequate?

My concern throughout has been to persuade my hon. Friends not to press their opposition to the Government in all sorts of matters, not least of them the Housing Bill, to the point at which they vote against clause 1 of this Bill.

I accept full responsibility for my failure if I have not persuaded my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North. I have done my best to persuade him. Perhaps he was not here at the beginning of my speech.

I came in to hear this brief speech, Mr. Weatherill, because I understood that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) was about to put the Government's case. He has done that very effectively. Being a lawyer by training, he always puts his arguments in a very erudite way, as compared with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is tautologous on many occasions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stechford referred to the sum of £42,000 million. I understood him to be arguing that this represented a 33 per cent. increase and that therefore it was an increase in public expenditure which must be borne in mind in relation to an inflation rate of 20 per cent. I am using my hon. Friend's words when I say that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water.