HC Deb 29 April 1971 vol 816 cc711-20
Mr. Roy Jenkins

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)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY, 3RD MAY—Second Reading of the National Insurance Bill and of the Friendly Societies Bill [Lords].

Motions on the Wool Textile Industry (Amendment) Orders.

TUESDAY, 4TH MAY—Supply (17th allotted day): There will be a debate on the Royal Navy, which will arise on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Redemption of Standard Securities (Scotland) Bill.

Motions on the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY, 5TH MAY—Second Reading of the Investment and Building Grants Bill.

Motion on the Fishing Vessels (Acquisition and Improvement) (Grants) (Amendment) Scheme.

THURSDAY, 6TH MAY—Supply (18th allotted day): There will be a debate on rates and rents on an Opposition Motion.

Motion on the North Pennines Rural Development Board (Dissolution) Order.

FRIDAY, 7TH MAY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY, 10TH MAY—Consideration of Private Members' Motions until 7 o'clock.

Afterwards Second Reading of the Mineral Workings Bill [Lords].

Mr. Roy Jenkins

Is the Leader of the House in a position to say when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be able to present to the House the report of the review on structure and investment procedures in the steel industry? Grave matters relating to the steel industry have arisen recently. We wish to debate these matters at an early date. It may be more convenient to wait for the report, but the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we cannot wait indefinitely.

Mr. Whitelaw

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's point. I cannot give an exact date, but I shall get in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and try to help the right hon. Gentleman as soon as I can.

Mr. Stonehouse

When does the Leader of the House expect to arrange a debate on the situation in East Pakistan, where more than 200,000 people have already been murdered in cold blood by the West Pakistan Army and from which more than a million refugees have already fled?

Mr. Whitelaw

I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is more than anxious to keep the House informed of all developments as often as he can. I know that he will continue to do that. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends are planning to put down a Motion on the subject. If they do, naturally I shall be prepared to discuss through the usual channels how it might be dealt with.

Mr. Onslow

Will my right hon. Friend indicate whether the House is likely to have a statement next week bringing hon. Members up to date on the progress of negotiations about the Rolls Royce RB211 engine?

Mr. Whitelaw

The negotiations are continuing and, therefore, I cannot say when a statement will be made. However, I undertake that one will be made to the House as soon as possible.

Mr. Leadbitter

The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed Early Day Motion 526, which is excellently worded, standing in my name and supported by over 100 right hon. and hon. Members, which expresses concern about the steel industry. Bearing in mind that the Leader of the House has already indicated his sympathy to a debate on the subject, may we have a statement now about the provision of time for a debate on the Motion?

That this House deplores the effect of Her Majesty's Government's policies and attitudes which are damaging the long-term development plans of the British Steel Corporation; and asserts that the increasing levels of redundancy in the industry are unacceptable; declares that the lowest level of steel production for eight years could have been avoided; protests that Government interference on steel prices and public utterances of nonintervention are contradictory postures frustrating the good management of the industry and its production potential; regrets that no steps have been taken to reduce the importation of steel and steel pipes; objects to announcements of closures and redundancies in breach of assurances of prior consultation or without any statement in the House of Commons; and draws attention to the lack of Government policy to change the course of events in the steel industry at a time when the unemployment figures in the country have reached the highest level in 30 years.

Mr. Whitelaw

I have already dealt with the subject in reply to the Question asked by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins). I fully appreciate its importance and the desire of many right hon. and hon. Members for a debate. However, I am sure that the House will accept what is an absolute fact which was stated to me constantly when we were in opposition. At this time of the year, inevitably, much of the initiative for such debates must lie with the Opposition in the Supply Days, of which they have a regular number.

Dame Irene Ward

If possible, will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to give us a statement now on what happened about the proposal to send certain Clauses of the Finance Bill upstairs, in view of his very helpful effort last night?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. What we did this year on the division of the Finance Bill was entirely in accordance with the precedent established in recent years by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite when they were in office. Last night it became clear that, according to the Standing Order under which we were operating, it was impossible for more than two hon. Members to question the arrangement which had been proposed. I said that for the future I should be prepared to look at this problem. It is an aspect of legislation which, inevitably, the Select Committee on Procedure is discussing at present.

Mr. Charles Morris

Is the Leader of the House aware that many right hon. and hon. Members feel that he has reneged on what they thought was a clear undertaking that the Government would find time for a full debate on the problems and anxieties of steel workers in regard to redundancies in the steel industry? What hope does the right hon. Gentleman hold out that such a debate will be held?

Mr. Whitelaw

If after studying my words I reach the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman that I have reneged on anything that I have said, then I shall honour anything which I have said. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should say that. I do not think that it is so. However, I should like to stick to the answer which I have given so far on the matter. If on further study of my words I think that I have gone further—and as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests—then I hope that the House knows that I shall honour them.

Dame Joan Vickers

As the Royal Navy Estimates are to be taken on the Adjournment of the House instead of under the usual procedure, may we have the extra hour and a half generally granted for these debates?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the procedure we are following on the Service Estimates this year is being adopted quite deliberately to help hon. Members with particular interest in Service matters. Complaint has been made in the past that the Service debates have been too close together. This new procedure, which inevitably meant that the Royal Navy debate would be held on the Adjournment, is to meet this complaint. If it is not satisfactory and hon. Members concerned with Service matters do not like it, then it will be possible to go back to the old procedure next year. All I am saying is that this procedure was designed to help hon. Members. I think that the time is sufficient. It has certainly proved so in the other debates.

Mr. C. Pannell

In view of what happened yesterday on the Motion before the House, may I ask the Leader of the House to turn his attention to implementing the recommendation of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, bearing in mind that any letters which might have been written by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter), or any other hon. Member who has received complaints concerning other people, would not be privileged in any way? The centre piece of that recommendation is that letters sent by hon. Members to Ministers or other bodies should be protected by privilege so that hon. Members are able to carry out their duties properly and conscientiously. This is now an urgent matter. Whenever something like we have had in the last few days arises, it calls attention to the procrastination of both parties to undertake necessary Parliamentary reform.

Mr. Whitelaw

I certainly accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. Equally, I am beginning to realise that my procrastination—if that is the right word—will soon, though not by any manner of means, begin to rival the procrastination of my predecessors. Therefore, I hope to bring the matter forward as soon as I can. The House will also realise that there is a considerable amount of controversy in some of the proposals contained in this particular report.

Mr. Burden

May I remind my right hon. Friend, who has been giving sympathetic consideration to my request, that it is also the wish of a great many hon. Members that time should be found to debate the report of the Littlewood Commission on Experiments on Animals which reported in 1965?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have been giving my hon. Friend friendly answers because I realised the importance of the subject. I shall continue to give a friendly answer this afternoon and hope that it will lead to the proper end very soon.

Mr. John Mendelson

Concerning the right hon. Gentleman's statement that at this time of year it is up to the Opposition to give a Supply Day for a major subject, does he accept that the position of the steel industry is different and exceptional in that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made several announcements of abrupt and very far-reaching changes which he proposes to impose on the British Steel Corporation? Is it not therefore his duty to provide a full day for a debate before the Secretary of State—here I dissent from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins)—produces his first report, so that all hon. Members, not only those representing steel constituencies, are able to bring to bear influence on the Government and the Ministers concerned before these vital decisions are taken?

Mr. Whitelaw

It is not for me to get involved in any argument about the timing of the debate. I think hon. Members in all parts of the House recognise the importance of the subject. I have nothing further to add to what I said recently to the right hon. Gentleman and also to the hon. Gentleman himself. For the sake of accuracy, what I said about Supply Days was no more than that at this time of year much of the initiative for such debates must inevitably lie with the Opposition, who have a regular number of Supply Days. This is a fact of life. I was stating no more than a fact of life.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

The right hon. Gentleman has taken the view that the Government can announce any decision, however far-reaching and damaging to important interests in this country, without any obligation to provide time of their own.

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept some of the propositions which the right hon. Gentleman makes about the nature of the decisions. I am not making any judgment. All I am saying is that inevitably much of the initiative for such debates must lie with the Opposition in their Supply Days. This is a fact of life. I make no judgment on particular decisions at any time. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that I was extremely careful not to do so.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am in a difficulty today, because there is a very important debate to follow in which 40 or 50 right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to speak. Therefore I cannot allow many more questions on Business.

Mr. Lawson

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Secretary of State for Wales was enabled to make a very welcome statement regarding the go ahead for the Llanwern steel development scheme. Will he make arrangements for the Secretary of State for Scotland during the coming week to make a similar statement about the go-ahead for the parallel scheme at Ravenscraig in my constituency?

Mr. Whitelaw

I cannot at this stage forecast whether such a statement will be made. I shall naturally call the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Ramsden

Reverting to the Finance Bill, will the Leader of the House bear in mind that the precedents to which he referred regarding the splitting of the Bill were all from the time when we had a Socialist Government and therefore not all that welcome to this side of the House? We therefore very much welcome his undertaking to have a look at this matter again.

Mr. Whitelaw

I ought to make it clear that I undertook last night to consider the question of the procedure which might be followed after such a splitting concerning hon. Members being able to question what had happened. As one who fully participated in the arrangements for splitting the Finance Bill during the period of the previous Government, I should be utterly wrong and out of character in now going back on what I then believed was a right procedure for the House.

Mr. Tinn

Does the Leader of the House accept that I would 'not accuse him of dishonouring the pledge or the assurance which he gave, because I recognise that he is not entirely responsible for the fact that we are not debating steel next week? Nevertheless, will he take on board the very deep concern in the House and in the constituencies which is not limited to present unemployment and impending redundancies but to the whole future of this vitally important industry? Will the right hon. Gentleman please try to find Government time so that it might be adequately discussed?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman couched his question. I have assured his hon. Friend that if I find that I have gone further than I think I have gone when I study my words I shall honour anything I have said. I absolutely accept the importance of the subject. On the general point, I cannot go further.

Mr. O'Malley

Concerning the commitment which the right hon. Gentleman may or may not have made about the steel industry, and bearing in mind, first, that the Opposition have already given half a Supply Day and, secondly, that almost weekly statements are being made in the Press and in this House adversely affecting the future of the steel industry, does he not think that it is absolutely scandalous that even at this stage the Government have made no proposal to have a debate on the steel industry? How much longer shall we have to wait?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept that it is in any way scandalous. The procedure being followed by the Government on this subject is exactly the same as that followed on other subjects by the Labour Government when the hon. Gentleman had the privilege of being the Deputy Chief Whip. We are not departing from precedent in any way.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Will the Leader of the House at least tell us when we shall have a chance to debate the White Paper on the Reorganisation of Local Government, which seems to have slipped out of consciousness altogether?

Mr. Whitelaw

It has not slipped out of my consciousness. I undertake that there will be a debate on that subject, but I cannot say when.

Mr. Dalyell

In view of the ugly reports from reputable British and American newspapers of mutilated bodies floating down the rivers in Ceylon, may we have a statement about the basis on which British arms are being supplied to the Government of Ceylon before we have a Nigeria-Biafra situation on our hands?

Mr. Whitelaw

Without wishing to follow the hon. Gentleman in some of his lurid phrases, I think I can recall my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary answering a Question on this subject recently. I will check on that. If that is not so, I will represent to him what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Atkinson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have just stated that some 40 or 50 right hon. and hon. Members would like to take part in the debate on unemployment. Many more right hon. and hon. Members on this side will possibly not try to catch your eye in order to enable those who come from steel constituencies to put their point of view. That does not diminish in any way the desire of those right hon. and hon. Members to debate the whole of the unemployment situation. Will you therefore accept that there are many more right hon. and hon. Members than the 40 or 50 you have mentioned who would otherwise have wished to take part in the debate? I hope, therefore, that the Leader of the House will accept that there is need for a wider debate.

Mr. Speaker

I am not certain whether that is a point of order, but it enables me to say something which I intended to say later. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members want to take part in the debate. The greatest contribution which those who do catch my eye can make is to be reasonably brief—and that includes the Front Benches.