HC Deb 03 December 1970 vol 807 cc1469-82
Mr. Harold Wilson

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:—

MONDAY, 7TH DECEMBER—Supply (7th Allotted Day): Motion to take note of the Fifth Report, and the relevant Observations, from the Estimates Committee in Session 1968–69, on the Inland Revenue Department.

Motions on the Agriculture Schemes and Orders and of the Restriction on Agreements (Estate Agents) Order.

TUESDAY, 8TH DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Highways Bill.

Motions relating to Consular Relations and Immunities and Privileges Orders.

WEDNESDAY, 9TH DECEMBER—Supply (8th Allotted Day): Debate on a topic to be announced.

Remaining stages of the Misuse of Drugs Bill.

THURSDAY, 10TH DECEMBER—Motions on the Rate Support Grant Orders, on Sunday Cinematograph Entertainments, on the London Transport (Compensation to Employees) Regulations and on the Functions of Traffic Wardens Order.

FRIDAY, 11TH DECEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY, 14TH DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Industrial Relations Bill, which will be concluded on Tuesday, 15th December.

Mr. Harold Wilson

With regard to the Industrial Relations Bill, do the Government intend to move that its Committee stage be taken on the Floor of the House? On a broader question, the right hon. Gentleman will recall that last week I stressed to him the importance of a debate on foreign affairs before Christmas. I believe he will find that, on the occasion of the previous Prime Minister's first visit to Washington, the House insisted on a debate before he went—in fact, we had two or three on defence and foreign affairs. Would it not be appropriate, since we have had no debate on foreign affairs of a general character since the Gracious Speech, that before the right hon. Gentleman goes to Washington the House should be able to discuss foreign affairs and, in the course of that debate, to express the concern to which I referred last week about recent developments in Vietnam?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, I am delighted to have his confident assurance of the triumphant conclusion of the Second Reading of this Bill. Obviously, there could be no question of where it went until it had successfully gained a Second Reading. As for the Committee stage, the Government have very seriously considered the fundamental importance of this Bill and all the issues which are involved. They have decided that the Committee stage of this Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House—[Interruption.] Yes, on the Floor of the House: I hope that I have made myself quite clear.

On the second point that the right hon. Gentleman raised, the question of a foreign affairs debate, I have felt it right, in response to what I know were the wishes of the Opposition, to have two full days for Second Reading of the Industrial Relations Bill. This has made it difficult to fit in a foreign affairs debate in this period. However, I note that the Opposition have not chosen a subject as yet for their Supply Day on Wednesday, 9th December. I am prepared to have discussions through the usual channels as to the possibility of such a foreign affairs debate, fitting in with the Foreign Secretary's programme as it must on this occasion as always in the past. But there can be discussions.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer to my first question. [Interruption.] I have thanked him because I thought that he went to a great deal of trouble to meet the Opposition on this point. But on the foreign affairs debate, do I understand that the talks he has in mind would be with a view to possibly giving up Government time on Wednesday so that we could have a Supply Day later? If so, we would want to talk about it. But surely he is not proposing—I do not think he was proposing—that out of a Supply Day we should find time for a debate on foreign affairs which it is clearly the Government's duty to give?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the second point, I was making the point that if we were to have a debate next week, bearing in mind the two days on the Industrial Relations Bill, it would probably be sensible to have it on the Wednesday, particularly since the Opposition have not so far picked a subject for a Supply Day. In the past, there has been a reasonable convention in the House that where there have been two days of a foreign affairs debate the Government have found one day and the Opposition have found the other. I have participated in those arrangements. I am prepared on this sort of basis to discuss through the usual channels whether this could be satisfactorily arranged on this occasion. But I should make it clear in doing so that I have not consulted my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I would naturally wish to do so in accordance with normal precedent.

Mr. Turton

On what day next week will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster be coming to the House to make a statement on his talks next Tuesday at Brussels? Will we have the opportunity of a debate after that statement?

Mr. Whitelaw

Subject to correction, I think almost certainly on Thursday, 10th December. As to a debate, I am afraid that if we are having one on foreign affairs I could not at this stage promise another on the Common Market. A statement after the negotiations is, I believe, the right answer at this stage.

Mr. Peart

I had the impression today, in view of the reply to a supplementary question, that the Prime Minister was looking into the matter of transferring Questions, especially those concerning Royal Commissions. I hope that that is firm and that the right hon. Gentleman, probably next week, might be able to tell the House the result of that inquiry.

Mr. Whitelaw

I understood the position to be that my right hon. Friend and I have made it clear that there has been no change in normal practice. What my right hon. Friend was referring to was whether the Prime Minister should answer Questions relating to the speeches not only of members of the Cabinet but of those Ministers inside one of the new major Departments. We have undertaken to consider this very carefully.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I would remind the House that there is an important debate ahead on the coal industry.

Mr. Nott

May we have an opportunity of a full day's debate on yesterday's announcement by the Minister for Aviation Supply on the airbus? While we wholly appreciate that the Government probably could not have made any other decision in the circumstances, nevertheless it has far-reaching financial and industrial implications. We should very much like the figures and an opportunity to debate the matter.

Mr. Whitelaw

I fully recognise the importance of this subject, but I am afraid that it would not be possible for such a debate next week.

Mr. George Thomas

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen Motion No. 146, dealing with the conduct of the Secretary of State for Wales?

[That this House, being aware of the assumption of quasi-judicial responsibility by the Secretary of State for Wales in connection with the public inquiry into the proposal to establish a gunnery range at Pembrey, deplores his refusal made in answer to a Question by the hon. Member for Llanelli on 25th November to give an undertaking that he would not consult with the Ministry of Defence, a party to the inquiry; and demands that the statement by the Secretary of State for Wales be referred to the Council on Tribunals.]

In view of the fact that this is a very serious censure on the Minister concerned, that the great majority of hon. Members representing Welsh constituencies have added their names to the Motion and that it is a matter of some discussion in the Principality, will the right hon. Gentleman allow us time to discuss this, since the Secretary of State himself is not a Welsh Member?

Mr. Whitelaw

I appreciate the point which the right hon. Gentleman raises. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is following exactly the practice which has been followed for many years. However, I would have thought that this Motion was eminently suitable for discussion in the Welsh Grand Committee.

Mr. John Wells

Could Monday's debate on agriculture be so arranged that it can range widely enough to include the statement which was made last week by the Secretary of State for Social Services about National Insurance regulations for occasional work in agriculture and horticulture, which is absolutely vital now; to embrace the widespread unrest which is felt among the horticultural community about Eastern European imports; and to enable us to ventilate the entire subject of horticulture and agriculture, since this would give great satisfaction in these industries, the members of which want these three topics debated urgently?

Mr. Whitelaw

In view of the technicality of my hon. Friend's question, I am only too relieved to be able to tell him that what will be in order in the debate is a matter not for me but for Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Shore

Further to the need for the right hon. Gentleman to find time for a debate on the Common Market before Christmas, is he aware of the growing concern that is felt about this issue, that it is quite wrong that there should be total silence in this House about it and that it is not good enough merely to say that statements and answers are regularly given on the subject?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can fairly say that there is silence in the House on this matter. As was promised by the previous Administration, and as has been carried out by the present Government, whenever my right hon. Friend returns from any negotiations, and more frequently than that, he makes a statement in the House and is subjected, and properly so, to considerable questioning. I do not see, therefore, how the right hon. Gentleman's accusation of there being total silence on the subject can possibly be substantiated. I am afraid that I could not promise a debate on this matter before Christmas. I can only say that I have noted the views of hon. Members and that, naturally, the question of such a debate is one which I am certainly prepared to discuss through the usual channels.

Mr. Redmond

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to Early Day Motion No. 164, entitled "Conduct of the Leader of the Opposition (No. 2)":

[That this House notes with sorrow the failure of the Leader of the Opposition to restrain his Party from deliberately promoting the break up of parliamentary proceedings during the debate on the Reform of Industrial Relations, thus attempting to frustrate the clear will of the electorate.]

Is he able to find time for this Motion to be debated?

Mr. Whitelaw

My only comment about noise at the end of parliamentary debates is that I was extremely grateful for the generous hearing which the House gave me when I replied to the debate last Monday night. I can only hope that the same generous treatment will be accorded to all hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House in such circumstances.

Mr. Dell

Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to Early Day Motion No. 171, which stands in my name and the names of a number of my hon. Friends, regarding the confiscation of savings of investors in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board? Has he also seen the comments which some of his hon. Friends made in the debate last Tuesday on the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (Capital Reconstruction) Bill, which was sponsored by the Government? Will he arrange for this Bill to be debated before Christmas?

[That this House condemns the action of the Government in refusing assistance to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and compelling it to place before Parliament a Bill which confiscates the saving of large numbers of small investors in the Board, who regarded it as equal in security to a local authority or Government investment, and who, if the Bill becomes law, will see repayment of their bonds deferred for two years and the nominal value reduced by 30 per cent.; declares that, as a matter of public faith, the Government, having taken over supervision of the running of the Board, should also provide funds necessary to enable it to regain viability and thus continue its vital service to the economy of Merseyside and the North-West.]

Mr. Whitelaw

Perhaps I should make a correction to what the right hon. Gentleman said. The Bill concerned was sponsored by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and not by the Government. This matter was debated last week. A statement was also made last week. I am afraid that I could not provide time for it to be debated next week.

Mr. Marten

Further to the questions which my right hon. Friend has been asked about providing time for the Common Market to be debated before the Christmas Recess, is he aware that it is not really a question of silence as much as a lack of information? Is he aware that that is why it would be right for there to be an urgent debate on the subject, at which time we might be able to draw from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy more information about what is going on?

Mr. Whitelaw

We undertook that whenever there were negotiations, my right hon. Friend would give the fullest possible information to the House. A week or so ago the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition reasonably asked me if it would be possible to have even more statements made to the House. I arranged for such a statement then, and there have been several other statements. We have had every intention of giving as much information as we possibly can, and this will continue.

Mr. Loughlin

Has the attention of the right hon. Gentleman been drawn to Motion No. 161 which stands in my name and the names of 120 other hon. Members and which deals with the plight of old-age pensioners?

[That this House, noting with great concern the ever-increasing cost of living and, in particular, the enormous and continuing increases in food prices, and alarmed at the effect of such increases on the aged and those living on fixed incomes, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to increase substantially retirement pensions forthwith and to offset any delay due to administrative problems by making an interim payment on a once-and-for-all basis before Christmas 1970.]

As this Motion refers to the possibility of an interim award being given before Christmas, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to change the business for next week to enable us to discuss it?

Mr. Whitelaw

I fully recognise the considerable importance of the Motion, but I am afraid that I could not arrange for it to he debated next week.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I urge my right hon. Friend to think again about the question which was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) about Monday's agricultural debate. Is he aware that there is considerable anxiety over a wide sphere of agriculture, and not only about the three points which my hon. Friend raised? Will he use his best endeavours to see that Monday's debate covers the widest possible sphere of agriculture?

Mr. Whitelaw

Perhaps my hon. Friend did not fully understand the answer which I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells). I am as anxious as are my hon. Friends to see that all relevant matters are reasonably discussed in the debate, but it would be wholly improper for me to try to say what will be in order in such a debate. That must remain a matter for Mr. Speaker and for nobody else.

Mr. Bob Brown

I am sure that the Leader of the House will have seen Early Day Motion No. 170 entitled "Justice for the Disabled".

[That this House urges Her Majesty's Government to seek to exempt all disabled persons on local authority and employment exchange registers from all prescription, dental and optical charges and to provide a tax allowance for clothing for disabled people who have heavy wear and tear from such aids as calipers and crutches.]

Is he aware that although the disabled are extremely grateful to the Labour Government for facilitating the passage of the Measure which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris), they are extremely concerned about, for example, the question of a clothing allowance for the disabled? Will he provide time soon for this matter to be debated?

Mr. Whitelaw

All hon. Members recognise the immense importance of this subject. I have no doubt that opportunities will arise from time to time for it to be discussed; but I am afraid that I am unable to find time for it to be debated next week.

Mr. Jennings

In view of the apparent reluctance at any time to have a free vote on the question of our entry into the Common Market and in view of last night's magnificent free vote—[Interruption.]—may I ask my right hon. Friend to provide time for there to be a short debate on whether or not this House should have a free vote on the Common Market issue?

Mr. Whitelaw

Matters concerning voting in this House are for my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh?"]—and, of course, the Opposition Chief Whip. It is sometimes decided, as it was on a matter like B.S.T. last night, that it is reasonable for there to be a free vote. It is interesting to note—I say this without meaning any offence to anybody—that B.S.T. was brought in on a whipped vote and went out on a free vote. As for other free votes, that must be a matter for decision in each case. Perhaps I am entitled to say, in view of the considerable experience which I have had in this matter, that the issue of a whip by any party to its Members, and particularly by the Government to their Members on a matter of Government policy, is something which has long been understood in the House as being an expression to those Members of the views of the Government on the particular matter under discussion.

Mr. McElhone

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the greatly increased fears of many people in South-West and Central Scotland about the Holy Loch base? Is he prepared to allow time for there to be a debate on the resiting of this base?

Mr. Whitelaw

I appreciate the anxiety of the hon. Gentleman and others, some of who have approached me, on this matter. I have been in consultation with both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Scotland on this issue. I am afraid that I could not offer time for it to be debated next week.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

While, when answering questions about finding time for a debate for the Common Market issue, my right hon. Friend has properly and courteously said that arrangements have been made through the usual channels, may I ask him to bear in mind that on this subject the usual channels are as one, which means that the normal pressures which would come through the normal channels are, understandably, not being brought to bear with the same degree of pressure? In these circumstances, will he think again and agree to provide time for hon. Members on both sides of the House to discuss this subject?

Mr. Whitelaw

Having had some experience of the usual channels, whatever may be their particular views on any issues—I make no comment on that—I have found them over the years to be very responsive to the views of hon. Members in all parts of the House, irrespective of their own views.

Mr. Marquand

When does the Leader of the House expect the next White Paper on the future projections of public expenditure to be published? Can he give an assurance that he will have a two-day debate on this when we return after the recess, because a one-day debate would be totally inadequate and would be a bad precedent.

Mr. Whitelaw

At this stage I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the exact answer as to the date when the White Paper will be published. I note what he says about a two-day debate. I think that I said during the debate on procedure that as a principle for the future the Government absolutely accept that there should be a two-day debate. Circumstances were somewhat different this year in view of the debates we had already had and I could not guarantee it this year, but I guaranteed it for the future. I think that the hon. Gentleman will remember that assurance.

Mr. John Morris

Does the Leader of the House recall that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in answering questions from myself and from my hon. Friends last Monday about the future ownership of the steel industry, said, "I shall make a statement as soon as I am in a position to do so"? Is it expected that there will be a statement next week or before Christmas about the ownership of the steel industry.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will note what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have no reason to suppose that there will be a statement next week.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

As the question of the Common Market is a vitally important and burning issue, and as in February three days were allotted to a debate and in May two days were allotted to a debate, will the Leader of the House consider arranging for us to have at least a one-day debate, if not a two-day debate, on this very important subject?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I cannot go further than what I have already said.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to the official announcement by the Secretary of State for Social Services that from June until October social welfare benefits depreciated in purchasing value by 2.2 per cent., which on an annual basis is 6.6 per cent.? As hon. Members on both sides have promised to look after the sick, the disabled, the unemployed and retired pensioners, will the right hon. Gentleman try to arrange a debate on Motion No. 172 which sets out these facts and which would give hon. Members on both sides an opportunity of declaring themselves on this issue?

[That this House notes that on 1st Deccember, 1970 the Government announced that between June and October, 1970 the poorest section of the population, on welfare benefits have seen the purchasing value of their benefits depreciate by 2.2 per cent., due to the rise in the cost of living; observes that whereas early in November, 1970 the Government gave to certain civil servants on salaries of £9,800 per annum increases, both retrospectively and in advance, totalling some 43 per cent., at the same time they refused to grant increase in benefits to the sick, disabled, unemployed, and retired pensioners; and, as these are having their benefits reduced by 6.6 per cent. per annum, is of the opinion that, before the chairmen of the nationalised boards and higher-paid civil servants receive in January, 1971 a third increase of as much as £2,500 per annum on salaries of £17,500 per annum, all welfare benefits should be increased.]

Mr. Whitelaw

I fully appreciate the importance of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. I cannot at this time promise a debate, but I am sure that there will be opportunities in the months ahead to raise these matters.

Mr. Walter Johnson

In view of the unsatisfactory and evasive answers to Questions on transport matters, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on transport before the recess? If this should not be possible, can I have an assurance that no decision on transport matters will be made before the recess and that the Government will bring matters before the House before decisions are taken?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to endorse his view that the answers to transport questions were evasive. As for any future policy, I will certainly call the attention of my right hon. Friends concerned to what the hon. Gentleman says. If there is to be a statement on these matters, it will be made to the House.

Mr. Dalyell

As an Anglo-American decision may be reached before 12th January, and as the Prime Minister has revealed that no one has told him the awful truth about the costs of building bases on coral limestone in the Indian Ocean, could we at least have a statement on costs and what the Government are doing in the Indian Ocean before 18th December?

Mr. Whitelaw

I will call the attention of my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence to what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not think that he has necessarily drawn the right conclusion from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's answers.

Mr. Swain

Is the Leader of the House aware that since he became the Leader of the House he has been about as charitable to the Opposition as a churchwarden with a two bob piece on a piece of elastic? Will he consider between now and ten o'clock this evening whether he will give permission for the Committee stage of the Coal Industry Bill to be taken on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have gone as far in that direction as I would wish for one day.

Mr. W. Baxter

Does the Leader of the House recognise that many people in Scotland will be very disturbed at the fact that he has turned down the opportunity to discuss the question of the siting of the Polaris base? People in Scotland are very concerned at the great danger to the people of Scotland and this is a matter of great urgency which should be discussed in the House at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Whitelaw

I will certainly call the attention of my right hon Friends concerned to what the hon. Gentleman says.