HC Deb 29 November 1967 vol 755 cc453-542

Considered in Committee.

[Sir ERIC FLETCHER in the Chair]

4.3 p.m.

Lord Balniel (Hertford)

I do not wish unduly to detain the Committee, Sir Eric, but may I raise a point of order which I think is of importance to the rights of back benchers and of the Opposition especially in connection with the Committee stage of the Bill?

For reasons which we understand, the Committee stage has been substantially delayed. On 16th November we were told by the Leader of the House—as he is not present I hasten to say that I make no criticism of him—that the reason was: I gather that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Social Security has some late Amendments and that it would be for the convenience of the House to see them in due time to debate them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1967; Vol. 754, c. 638.] 'The Committee stage was subsequently further postponed, and I asked the Leader of the House on 20th November: Are we to understand that the Amendments are drafting Amendments or are connected with the economic situation? The Leader of the House replied: I think that the second assumption would be correct."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1967; Vol. 754, c. 953.] No Amendments by the Government have been put on the Notice Paper, nor has any statement been made by the Minister of Social Security, as we were led to believe would happen. That is a matter which lies in the Government's discretion. But earlier this week my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) asked what had happened to the Amendments which we had been led to believe were to be tabled. The Minister replied: He will get a full explanation when we discuss the Bill on Wednesday."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November, 1967; Vol. 755, c. 33.] The Chief Whip of the Liberal Party also asked whether we would get an explanation from the Government of the consequences of their devaluation measures on the Bill, and again the Minister asked us to await the debate on Wednesday.

My point of order is that I understand that in Committee we debate the very narrowly defined Amendments and also the Questions, That Clauses stand part. I understand that on neither of those occasions is it possible for the Minister to make a full explanation. On Third Reading, also, we can discuss only matters which are contained in the Bill, and I therefore ask you, Sir Eric, how it is possible for the Minister to implement the undertakings which were given earlier this week?

The Minister of Social Security (Mrs. Judith Hart)

Further to that point of order. I should be very happy—indeed, I am anxious—to explain, as I promised, why there are no Government Amendments. Some procedural difficulties are presented, as the noble Lord recognised. It might well be held that an explanation of this kind might be relevant to our discussions, particularly on the first two Amendments. It might equally he held that it might be relevant to our discussion either on the Question, That Clause 1 stand part, or on the Third Reading. Those all seem to me to be possibilities.

I find myself in the difficulty that to explain why we have not put down Amendments presents particular procedural difficulties and I, too, would welcome your guidance, Sir Eric. I am happy to give an explanation at whatever point the Committee thinks best.

The Chairman

In answer to the point of order raised by the noble Lord, the Minister has indicated that she desires to give an explanation, and I imagine that she will endeavour to do so within the rules of order on one or other of the Amendments which are being called.

Lord Balniel

Further to that point of order. If the Minister gives that explanation, are we, as an Opposition, entitled to a full-ranging debate of the matters which she raises? With great respect, it seems to me that the Committee is in a considerable difficulty. Perhaps, a solution might be for the Minister to move to report Progress, and to make a statement of the Government's policy, which the whole Committee is awaiting. Then perhaps we could have a full, wide-ranging debate of the issues involved.

Mrs. Hart

Further to that point of order. The difficulty is not quite as the noble Lord seems to summarise it. It is not that the Committee is awaiting a statement of policy from the Government. The Committee is waiting to hear why there are no Government Amendments. I must distinguish between the two rather carefully, because what might be held to be relevant to the Bill in terms of the absence of Government Amendments would certainly not be relevant in terms of a general discussion of the whole Government policy about one particular aspect of devaluation—at least, not on this occasion and in this Committee.

I seek your guidance, Sir Eric. It would be perfectly convenient for me at this point to explain why there are no Government Amendments, if you would regard that as being suitable.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

Further to the point of order, Sir Eric. I, too, find myself in some difficulty, as does the noble Lord the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel). I fully understood from what Government spokesmen said that we should have a chance to discuss the aftermath of devaluation in relation to the Bill. I am in a quandary. I notice from the list of selections that none of the new Clauses has been selected. I imagine, Sir Eric—I should be grateful if you would clarify the position—that this means that we shall not have a chance to discuss the new Clauses. Realising that the Government had failed to put down Amendments of this sort, I tabled the widest possible new Clause 3 to enable a discussion to take place and to enable us to be given a specific answer.

Mrs. Hart

Further to that point of order, Sir Eric. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to suggest that he was led in any way by any of my right hon. Friends or myself to suppose that there would be on this occasion and the further stages of the Bill an opportunity for a full discussion or a full statement to be made about the Government's policy as regards the effects of devaluation on the most vulnerable.

I would refer the hon. Gentleman, as did the noble Lord the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), to what was said in the House. The hon. Gentleman will find that on both occasions when the Lord President of the Council was answering questions about the timing of the further stages of the Bill and when I was answering a question related to this on Monday all of us were discussing the further progress of the Bill. On Monday, I said that consideration was being given to the implications of devaluation on the further progress of the Bill—no more, no less. Therefore, the Committee is entitled to expect from me an explanation of what our view was on the further progress of the Bill, but no more.

Several Hon. Members


Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

Further to the point of order, Sir Eric—

The Chairman

If the Committee will allow me, I will deal with the points of order already raised.

In answer to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe), the new Clauses have not been selected because they are out of order.

In answer to the point of order raised by the noble Lord, it would be out of order in this Committee stage to have anything in the nature of a far-reaching debate on devaluation. Equally, it would be out of order in the Committee stage to have any kind of debate as to why there are no Government Amendments.

I should have thought, if I may suggest it to the Committee, that the best course would have been to proceed with the Amendments which are on the Notice Paper and which have been selected and see how far we can get in discussing them with the matters, so far as they are in order, that both sides of the Committee want to raise.

Sir J. Eden

Further to that point of order, Sir Eric. If I may say so with respect, you have accurately stated the dilemma in which we find ourselves. It is apparent from what the right hon. Lady has said already that she is anxious, where it is possible, to meet the wishes of the Committee and give us some of the information which she has in her possession.

It is distinctly within my recollection that in one of the earlier exchanges the Leader of the House indicated that Government Amendments would be tabled in time for full study before the weekend. These have not materialised. I think that there is a clear solution before the right hon. Lady, and that is to report Progress, a suggestion put to her by my noble Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), one to which I hope she will give very serious consideration, because in that way she would be able to meet the full wishes of the Committee and make the explanation that she is anxious to give.

Lord Balniel

Further to the point of order, Sir Eric. Perhaps it might be of assistance if I myself moved to report Progress so as to enable the right hon. Lady to explain why the Amendments have not been tabled and also give the Committee some outline of the policies which are now to be pursued to assist the poorest sections of our community and save them from the full impact of the Government's devaluation proposals.

I beg to move, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

The Chairman

It would certainly regularise the procedure in the Committee if I were to accept a Motion to report Progress on the understanding that it was designed to enable the Minister to make a short statement as to matters that the noble Lord has raised with a view to our then proceeding with the Amendments as soon as that matter has been disposed of.

Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)

Further to that point of order, Sir Eric. If Progress is reported for the purpose that you have said, which I think is very reasonable and the only possible solution, your statement that the Amendments on the Notice Paper should then be proceeded with would deny quesioning of the statement by the Minister. That, surely, must he contained within any short debate to report Progress. I trust that you are not ruling in advance that it must be purely for the purpose of a statement by the Minister, excluding any discussion on it.

The Chairman

The Standing Orders on the subject are quite explicit. Any debate on a Motion to report Progess is very narrowly circumscribed.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (Horncastle)

Further to that point of order, Sir Eric. Can you say whether, when the second Amendment which I understand the Chair is likely to call is put, it will be in order to discuss the closely related Amendments to the Schedule?

The Chairman

My present intention in calling the second Amendment is to have a number of related Amendments discussed with it as indicated in the list in the Lobby.

The Question is, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

4.15 p.m.

Mrs. Hart

I welcome the opportunity that the noble Lord has given me to clarify the situation. As I said a moment or two ago, I realised that the Committee would have bee[...] wondering why we had not put down Government Amendments to the Bill in view of the fact that on one occasion, and on one occasion alone, the Bill was delayed so that we could consider the matter. I emphasise that it was on one occasion alone. The second delay was for the rearrangement of business last week to allow a debate on devaluation. The total delay has not been more than eight days.

The Government have made it quite clear that one of their main concerns is that the most vulnerable shall be protected from the consequences of the rise in prices due to devaluation. The Committee will want to hear from me which groups we identify as likely to be in need of protection and at what time we see this as likely to be necessary, because it has a bearing on the Bill. We see the most vulnerable as those with slender resources who are old or sick and those families which must support their children on very low incomes. It is these groups who must be given help at the right time.

We start off, fortunately, in a good position. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs said last week, we calculate that the increase in the cost of living due to devaluation will be about 2½ to 3 per cent. It was only a month ago that we increased the scales of supplementary benefit, by 5s. at the single householder rate. So those among the old and sick with the greatest need start off from a new and better level of income. At the same time, we are now in the Bill legislating for an increase in family allowances, to take full effect in April. An increased family allowance for each fourth and subsequent child in larger families was, of course, put into payment at the end of last month.

The groups that we identify as likely to be in need of protection therefore start off from this new and better level of income which the present Government have assured for them.

What we propose to do is to watch price trends carefully, and I can give the Committee a complete assurance that at the right time we will take the appropriate action to protect these groups. We shall, of course, be intent upon directing our help to those groups which need it most—

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

In what way?

Mrs. Hart

—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will have patience.

In the field of the poorest of those who are old or sick. we have an easy and accepted method by way of supplementary benefits. In relation to poor families, we must, of course, consider the help which is to be given in the context of redistribution of purchasing power to which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred a week ago.

The Committee will appreciate that it was thought advisable to delay by a week or so the further stages of the Bill because I wanted to make sure that no options that we might wish to use would be closed to us. Taking a power in the Bill would have been one of them, but I am satisfied that there are other ways in which we can do whatever we may need to do. So I have not proposed any Amendments to the Bill.

I can, however, assure the Committee that at the right time action will be taken, and the House of Commons will be asked to approve our proposals.

Lord Balniel

This is the first occasion we have had of hearing from the Government the policies which they will implement to fulfil the promise which was given by the Prime Minister to protect the weakest sections of the community from the full impact of devaluation. The righ hon. Lady has now given the Committee her estimate of the increased prices which will follow from devaluation. There is no doubt that the £ in the pockets of ordinary members of the community has been devalued, in spite of the slightly different story they were told on television. We will have to have an opportunity of studying this important statement and we hope to have an opportunity of debating it at an early date.

Three questions occur to me immediately. First, when will legislation be introduced? I do not think that the right hon. Lady told us that. Secondly, she selected certain groups of the community would be hardest hit by devaluation. One of the groups which she mentioned were families with a large number of children in a low income bracket. It is precisely these families who could be helped by the Bill if the right hon. Lady were prepared to amend it.

Mrs. Hart

I think that the noble Lord may find it helpful if I remind him of the exact passage of my statement to which he is presumably referring. I identified as one group those families who must support their children on very low incomes.

Lord Balniel

I think that the right hon. Lady, if I have understood her correctly, has confirmed that my hearing was absolutely correct. It is precisely these families who could be helped if Amendments were tabled by the Government. We shall want to have the opportunity of studying the statement and debating it. At this stage I express our very deep regret that the Government have not been prepared to accept the advice we proffered them on Second Reading to amend the Bill to help the lowest income families who are hardest hit by rising prices.

Sir J. Eden

I was hoping that we would get—if not from the Minister herself, at any rate from some other occupant of the Government Front Bench—a clear indication of what the right hon. Lady meant by "at the right time". Her statement was couched in extremely general terms. She said that she would take appropriate action, that she would direct help to those who most need it, that she would do this at the right time, and that action will then be taken.

All these, as the Minister will appreciate, and as was clearly intended, are very general terms. They beg an enormous number of questions. There are many hon. Members on both sides who must believe, as I do, and as my noble Friend obviously does, that this is the right time, that this is the opportunity, that the right hon. Lady has the chance now of taking appropriate action to help those who need help most, and that the Bill is the opportunity which is provided for her. All that we heard during the days preceding this Committee stage indicated that the Government were considering tabling Amendments to the Bill. The right hon. Lady has not made it clear why that action was not taken, why she considers the Bill to be the inappropriate time, and why she has decided to delay bringing help to those who really stand in most need of it.

If we cannot have any further intervention from the right hon. Lady at this stage of our proceedings, some other occupant of the Treasury Bench—some other right hon. or hon. Member of Ministerial rank—should have the courtesy of explaining the full implications of the words the Minister used, because her assurances were in such loose general terms that we are entitled to hear more detail from the Government about what is intended.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

On a point of order, Sir Eric. The right hon. Lady said earlier that, if she made a statement, it would probably be found that her statement would affect Clauses 1 and 2 and that it might be convenient to allow the debate to cover those two Clauses. I think that you ruled earlier that that would not be possible. In my opinion, the right hon. Lady was absolutely right and her statement considerably affects our deliberations on these two Clauses. I wonder whether you could rule now on the question whether we shall be able in the course of the debate to discuss the statement which the Minister has made.

The Chairman

I am not sure that I understand the import of the hon. and gallant Gentleman's point of order. In so far as I do understand it, my answer is that we shall have to wait until we reach the Amendments to see precisely what is in order and what is not. It would be premature for me to rule on hypothetical questions of that kind now.

Mr. Pardoe

I regard what we have just heard from the Minister as disgrace- fully complacent. Hon. Members will know that we have been given a categoric assurance; in many statements from the Government during the last week or so we have been assured that the Government would table Amendments to the Bill and would make proposals for taking care of the very real increase in the cost of living which will occur as a result of devaluation. I am one of those who has argued the case for devaluation over the last three years. It does no good to the case for devaluation to be complacent about the effects it will have on the living standards of the people whom the right hon. Lady has delineated as the old, the sick, and families on low incomes.

The Minister said that one of the options open to the Government was taking the power which I suggested, but that she had discarded that. I cannot think why she has discarded it. If she is to help the families on low incomes, I think I am right in saying that she will have to introduce new legislation, with all the delays involved in that process. The Minister knows full well how many increases there have been in family allowances in the last 20 years. It will take goodness knows how long to get another increase through. The Bill is out of date today. It is out of date long before it is due to come into force in April: it is devalued.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

I had not intended to take part in this debate, but I have been provoked into rising because the right hon. Lady's reply to the Motion was thoroughly disgraceful. Although the Motion was moved as a formality so that the Minister could have an opportunity to make her explanation, as the result of her explanation I think that the Committee should carry the Motion. The Minister has said, in effect, that what the Prime Minister said about protecting the under-privileged from the effects of devaluation will not be put into effect for months. It cannot be, unless it is incorporated into the Bill.

Everybody concerned with this Committee stage has been expecting the Minister to table Amendments, right up to the last minute. The Minister has explained why she has not done so—because the Government have no intention of doing anything at present. I am sure that many hon. Members opposite, too, would like to table Amendments to put into effect the pledge given by the Prime Minister on television, namely, that it was the Government's intention to protect the under-privileged element in the community. It would have been in order for hon. Members to have done this. I think that the Motion should be carried so that the Committee stage of the Bill could be delayed and hon. Members on both sides could table appropriate Amendments to carry out the Prime Minister's pledge.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I do not want to spoil the enjoyment and pleasure of some hon. Members opposite. If they make their speeches now, it may save time later. It would be unreasonable to assume that the effects of devaluation will be obvious even by April, which is the point of time we shall be discussing later.

I am not trying to make political capital out of this, as some hon. Members opposite are. I would like my right hon. Friend to assure me that a special watch will be kept on the rise in the cost of living which is expected to occur as a result of devaluation. Hopes having been raised, and statements having been made by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, old people, particularly those who are being exploited mercilessly at the moment by hon. Members opposite—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am entitled to my opinion. It is quite reasonable to expect my right hon. Friend to assure us that a close watch will be kept on the rise in the cost of living resulting from devaluation.

The Chairman

Order. I cannot allow this to become a general debate on devaluation. What the hon. Gentleman is saying does not relate to the Motion, although it may be appropriate to some other occasion.

Mr. Brown

I am a very fair-minded man, but that was the whole purpose of the exercise by hon. Members opposite. What I am asking for is specifically related to what my right hon. Friend said in her statement, when she said that the cost of living would be likely to rise by 2½ per cent. to 3 per cent. All I am asking for is an assurance that this will be watched and that when the cost of living starts to rise because of the devaluation, we shall have an indication that the appropriate time has arrived for further increases in benefits to be announced.

4.30 p.m.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Many of us were dumbfounded as well as angered by the Minister's statement. I can only assume that she is not sufficiently seized of the problem facing those about whom she said rather nebulously would eventually have to be helped. She said that the rise in the cost of living, against which we are anxious that this legislation should protect those about whom the right hon. Lady has said she is concerned, would be between 2½ per cent. and 3 per cent. due to devaluation, but is extraordinary to imagine, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) suggested, that no increase in the cost of living will be felt until next April.

That is ridiculous. Certainly, the increases about which we are concerned will not be kept down to 3½ per cent. or even 2½ per cent. Price increases for things such as bread, butter, tea, coffee and meat, increases against which those about whom we are concerned need protection, not by next April but in this legislation, will have occurred long before next April. Many of us are extremely concerned about the right hon. Lady's attitude which seems to be "jam tomorrow", and never help for those who need it today.

Mr. Hirst

Our proceedings are becoming a complete farce. Once the right hon. Lady had intended not to put forward any Amendments to the Bill there was only one thing which she could do and that was to withdraw the Bill until the Government had made their decision. It is prejudicial to the reputation of Parliament that we should have to discuss Amendments to a Bill which in a short time will have no relevance to the protection of those who are badly hit by devaluation.

The suggestion that the Motion should be accepted is the only right and dignified way to proceed, and I am surprised that the Government should have dreamt for a moment of presenting this situation to the House and insulting those concerned at the same time.

Mr. Tim Fortescue (Liverpool, Garston)

It can be seldom that a Minister has had such an opportunity for using legislation actually before Parliament at a time of devaluation or some other economic tragedy. Will the right hon. Lady explain rather more fully why she does not choose to make use of this wonderful opportunity? She has said that she will not do so, but we should like to know why.

Mr. Frederic Harris

I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) in confronting the right hon. Lady with her extraordinary estimate of a 2½ per cent. to 3 per cent. increase in the cost of living because of devaluation. What basis has she for such a figure? Does she not know that already the cost of imported goods is rising in excess of that amount and that Australian foods have already gone up? Even the Chancellor gave an estimate of about 6 per cent., or 7½d. in the £.Where does the right hon. Lady get the idea that it will be 2½ per cent. to 3 per cent.? [HON. MEMBERS "That is about 7½d."] So it is; I retract that argument.

The Chairman

Order. This kind of detail is not relevant to whether we should proceed with the Bill.

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

I may be voicing an opinion which no one else shares, but I cannot help thinking that an important point in the right hon. Lady's statement may have been missed. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friends complained that everything was to be done irrespective of the incomes of the beneficiaries and that the Bill lacked the opportunity to select and to make sure that help was going where it was really needed. It was for that reason that we found fault with the method of using this Bill, but we felt that if it bad to be used, then we would make the best of it.

I understood the right hon. Lady to say that in her desire to fulfil the Prime Minister's promise to help certain sections of the population who will suffer she has come round to our point of view that the Bill is not a suitable opportunity to fulfil and that she is endorsing our fundamental proposition on Second Reading by saying that she cannot use the Bill to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge. Let us hope that she does not take too long to find another vehicle.

Lord Balniel

You have been extraordinarily good to the Committee, Sir Eric, in allowing us to debate this Motion. I am a little disappointed that the right hon. Lady has not taken the opportunity to take back her Bill and re-examine it and try to help those sections of the community in greatest need.

Before withdrawing the Motion, discussion of which has been of the greatest assistance to the Committee, there are three points which I should like to put from an immediate and off-the-cuff study of the statement. First, the Government clearly have absolutely no intention of giving any immedate help to those in greatest need. They are not prepared to amend the Bill, which comes into operation next April. Those families in the greatest need will not receive enough until next April, and we know already that the benefits which they will be receiving will by then have become seriously devalued from the time of their introduction on Second Reading.

Secondly, it is clear that if she wished the right hon. Lady could amend the Bill absolutely immediately—only an alteration in the Financial Resolution is required—and it is, therefore, clear that the Government have no wish to amend the Bill to bring help to needy families.

Thirdly, it is clear that the right hon. Lady has no intention of telling the country when legislation will be introduced—and legislation will be necessary—to implement the Prime Minister's pledge. We will clearly have to seek an early opportunity to debate this thoroughly unsatisfactory statement. We are grateful to you, Sir Eric, for giving us the opportunity to elicit it and with your permission. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Hon. Members


Question put and negatived.

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