HC Deb 25 February 1971 vol 812 cc849-58
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, 1ST MARCH—Debate on a Motion to approve the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1971 (Command No. 4592).

Remaining stages of Mr. Speaker King's Retirement Bil.

TUESDAY, 2ND MARCH—Conclusion of the debate on defence

Lords Amendments to the Atomic Energy Authority Bill.

Motions on the Welfare Food (Extension of definition) Order, the Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation Scheme, the Calf Subsidies (United Kingdom) Scheme, the Payments in Aid of Agricultural (Extension) Order and on the Electricity (Borrowing Powers) Order.

WEDNESDAY, 3RD MARCH—Supply [11th Allotted Day]: There will be a debate on the sale of arms to South Africa, which will arise on an Opposition Motion.

The Defence Vote on Account 1971–72 will also be before the House.

Motion on the General Practice Finance Corporation Order.

THURSDAY, 4TH MARCH—Debate on a Motion to take note of the Report of the Roskill Commission on the Third London Airport.

FRIDAY, 5TH MARCH—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY, 8TH MARCH—Second Reading of the Immigrants Bill.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman will have formed his own view of the length of business that he has announced for Tuesday night. Is he aware that the House is becoming increasingly concerned about business being added without the House being informed, except by means of the Notice Paper? Is he aware, for example, that tonight the House is being asked, at rather short notice, to take a Motion relating to Scottish legal aid, though we recognise that this is necessary and urgent?

Is he aware that it would be better—I press it no further at this stage—if the Leader of the House prevented the Government's affairs from getting into such a muddle—[HON. MEMBERS: "Cheap."j—with the result that he must do it in this way? [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite may not know that these Regulations must become law by 1st March, but that could have been foreseen by the Government. Would he agree that when this sort of thing happens it would be helpful to the House if there were a supplementary business statement, as is usual in these matters?

Is the right hon. Gentleman in a position to say if there is likely to be a Government statement on police pay, which we read impeccably in the Press today is to be announced this afternoon but apparently not in this House? Will he undertake that a statement will be made on this question in the House tomorrow morning?

In connection with the Immigration Bill, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm that, in accordance with the precedents of previous immigration Measures, the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor of the House?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is a long time since we had an official debate on Wales? There has been a recent debate on Scotland, of which there should be more. What are his intentions about a debate on Welsh affairs in Government time?

Mr. Whitelaw

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question about Tuesday's business is that I think it will be seen by the House that many of the Orders which are down for Tuesday night will be ones which hon. Members will want. [Interruption.] When hon. Members have studied them, I think they will agree that they are Orders which the whole House wants. Perhaps hon. Members would like to study them, after which I think they will agree that they like them.

The right hon. Gentleman next questioned me about the Motion which has been tabled for tonight in relation to the Lands Tribunal for Scotland, He is perfectly correct to say that it is urgently needed. This has been the case in the past and I therefore do not accept his accusation of muddle. As has happened with all Governments, including the one of which the right hon. Gentleman was the head, these matters must sometimes be tabled at rather short notice.

We are acting in accordance with precedent and I recall that when we were in Opposition I was frequently at the receiving end of this procedure. The Opposition were properly informed. I agree that wherever possible the matter should be announced. However, I am not anxious to make supplementary business statements—that is, unless it is felt by the Opposition, when they are informed, that I should do so. If the Opposition consider that I should do it, then I would do so, but this has not normally been thought necessary in the past.

There is not normally a statement on matters like police pay. However, I will call the attention of my right lion. Friend the Home Secretary to what the right hon. Gentleman said, who will no doubt see whether a statement should be made to the House. But I can make no commitment on that.

The Government, having considered all the circumstances, have formed the view that it would be right for the Committee stage of the Immigration Bill to be handled by a Standing Committee upstairs.

As to debates on Wales, I undertake that, as under previous Governments, there will be a debate on Wales on the Floor of the House, but I cannot undertake when it will be.

Mr. Harold Wilson

We understand the right hon. Gentleman's difficulties on the legislative timetable. All of us concede that if he felt he had a free hand he would want the Committee stage of the Immigration Bill to be on the Floor of the House, but for the exigencies of his time-table. But is he aware that the decision he has just announced is contrary to all precedent in these matters? It is a major constitutional Measure affecting citizenship rights in this country and, still more, introducing new concepts about citizenship rights both within the Commonwealth and as between Commonwealth and alien immigrants. In those circumstances, whatever his difficulties, will he reconsider the matter, because there is no warrant in any precedent for such a Bill to be taken upstairs?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's strictures about the difficulties, because they do not exist. All the circumstances which the right hon. Gentleman has outlined were taken into consideration before the Government came to their decision.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

So that Wednesday's debate on South African arms may take place on the basis of the fullest possible information, will my right hon. Friend seek the Opposition's agreement to the making available to the House of the papers which passed on this matter under the late Government, including in particular the Cabinet papers submitted by the then Foreign Secretary and the then Secretary of State for Defence?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is not a matter within my responsibility, but no doubt right hon. Members opposite will have noted what my right hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Despite the fact that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are a little misled by what they have read, I shall be very happy to give authority for those papers to be made available when the right hon. Gentlemen give authority for the papers about Suez to be made available.

Dame Irene Ward

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Lord Chancellor during the next week, if it is constitutional to do so, to find a means of conveying to the French legal authorities the statement made by the judge in the recent appeal case reversing an order transferring custody of an English child to a French father? When the judge reversed the decision and gave the custody to the mother he asked whether his views on the case could be conveyed to the French legal authorities. May I have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that the Lord Chancellor will try to convey that information to whomsoever it is right for it to be conveyed to in France, as the case is causing grave anxiety and is detrimental to the child and the mother?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I think that I should confine myself to an assurance that I will bring to the notice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor what she has said. I do not think that it would be right for me to go further.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas

This is rather a different point. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the first Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, bearing in mind that we do not want to lose the momentum created by the European Conservation Year which was launched 12 months ago?

Mr. Whitelaw

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the importance of the Report and the interest which hon. Members throughout the House have in it, but there should be an interval for hon. Members to study it and note what it says. I could not give a commitment on a debate at this stage.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Many of us who would have welcomed the Immigration Bill's being discussed in Committee on the Floor of the House will be relieved that it is going upstairs, because we shall not have the manipulation of the voting procedure which has brought the House into disrepute.

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that I should be wise to confine myself to no further comment.

Mr. James Johnson

What is happening in the mysterious matter of the Fishing Vessels (Acquisition and Improvement) (Grants) (Amendment) Scheme, 1970? The Leader of the House, in whose word I have every faith, gave an assurance yesterday that he would do something about this. Can he tell us what he is doing?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, I can. In view of the terms of the Report of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has asked me to say that he will withdraw the Motion relating to the Scheme.

Mr. Moate

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Fire Precautions Bill was delayed by the irresponsible filibustering of Labour hon. Members? As it is an important Measure, concerned with the saving of life, when will time be provided for its remaining stages?

Mr. Whitelaw

It is true that it is an important Measure. I understand that both sides agree that it is thoroughly desirable to get it through the House, and I hope that an opportunity will be provided at an early stage for this to happen quickly.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Does the Leader of the House appreciate that in the last Government there were no fewer than nine Ministers from Wales but that in the present Government there is not a single one, and that the affairs of Wales are tending to be neglected? There is an urgent need for a debate on the Floor of the House on Welsh affairs.

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept for one moment that the Ministers from Wales in this Government are not more than capable of carrying out the work conducted by a very large number in the previous Government. I have given an undertaking that there will be a debate on Welsh affairs on the Floor of the House, but I cannot say when.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

Will my right hon. Friend give an early opportunity to the House to consider the findings of the Select Committee on Procedure on Scrutiny of Taxation, published today, bearing in mind the great advantage of its recommendations being adopted in time for the consideration of this year's Budget?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what my hon. Friend has said. I have read the Select Committee's Report, which raises some important points. I cannot say that there will be time for a debate, but I can undertake that the Report will be very carefully considered and that if any of its recommendations can be put into effect this year the Government will certainly consider doing so.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

What circumstances other than the exigencies of the Government's legislative programme have led the right hon. Gentleman to break the precedent on all previous Immigration Bills and not to take the Measure on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have said before that the Government considered all the circumstances and formed this view. The Government are entitled to make up their mind. They have, and they will have the Bill upstairs.

Mr. Benyon

In view of the large number of hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate on the Roskill Commission's Report, will my right hon. Friend extend the debate after 10 o'clock?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, Sir. I have had representations from a large number of hon. Members that they wish to have more time for that debate, and I therefore undertake to seek to suspend the rule for two hours for that purpose.

Mr. Lawson

It is some months since the right hon. Gentleman gave an undertaking to set up a Select Committee on Scottish affairs. What is the matter? When is it to be set up?

Mr. Whitelaw

I undertook that the Committee would be set up at some time. I note, however, that Scottish Members seem fully engaged in Scottish legislation at present.

Sir G. Nabarro

Will my right hon. Friend consider flushing out the usual channels sufficiently next week to be able to resist the temptation of following in the bad habit of earlier Leaders of the House and former Government Chief Whips of delaying the issuing of by-election Writs for up to nine months? Is he aware that five by-elections are now pending? Could not the Writs be moved next week in order to enfranchise the four former Labour-held constituencies and the one Tory constituency so that we may gauge public opinion in support of the Government on the Industrial Relations Bill?

Mr. Whitelaw

I would not join my hon. Friend in the strictures on my predecessors on either side of the House. Neither they nor I have any responsibility for the particular matter he raises.

Mr. Conlan

Has the right hon. Gentleman observed that the Questions to the Secretary of State for Social Services are falling on Tuesdays, with the result that they are restricted to 45 minutes because the Prime Minister's Questions start at 3.15? This practice will continue for the foreseeable future unless the right hon. Gentleman considers staggering questioning, so that occasionally the Questions to the Secretary of State for Social Services fall on a Monday or a Wednesday so that the House has a full hour in which to question this very important Department.

Mr. Whitelaw

The problem of finding a Question roster satisfactory to all interests in the House is inevitably extremely difficult. Whenever one switches a Department from one day to another, to the satisfaction of those interested in that Department, one offends other hon. Members interested in a different Department. This is inevitably a problem of the Question roster. In truth, the only satisfactory way to get through more Questions is to be quicker in with them. That aspect has been mentioned to the House by you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Hastings

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it might be helpful to the Government, since they want the views of the House about the Roskill Report next week, to limit both the length and the number of speeches from both Front Benches to two? Might it not be more useful in that event if the Front Bench speeches came at the end of the debate rather than at the beginning?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what my hon. Friend says. I will consider it, but I could not give him any assurance.

Mr. Healey

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will carry out the promise he made last Monday to make a statement next Monday before the defence debate on the withdrawal from the Persian Gulf? I think that the country would be interested to know that the Government are breaking their election promise on this matter, although on this side of the House we welcome their decision.

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept the premise on which the right hon. Gentleman puts his question. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a statement about the Persian Gulf on Monday before the defence debate.

Mr. Dalyell

In the defence debate, is there any point in a Front Bench speech from the Government since it has already been made by Lord Carrington? Is it desirable that major speeches should be made in another place rather than in the House of Commons? Since the speech has been made, will the right hon. Gentleman facilitate at the Table Office my 52 Written Questions for tomorrow on Lord Carrington's speech, which would greatly help the House as to clarification of the issues in the debate?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman must wait and see the way we handle the debate and what speakers take part on our behalf. I cannot possibly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks about his Questions.

Mr. William Hamilton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that last Friday the Divorce (Scotland) Bill got its Second Reading? Can he give an assurance that he will take steps to see that it gets to the Second Scottish Standing Committee upstairs?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not think I can give such an assurance on Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman has made an important statement to the effect that the Government have decided to withdraw the Fishing Vessels Grant Scheme. There are very serious implications. I welcome his statement, but will he tell us whether the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food proposes to clarify the situation to the House, since grants to applicants for assistance have been frozen since 27th October and this is creating a grave situation in the industry?

Mr. Whitelaw

What I said was that my right hon. Friend had asked me to tell the House that he would withdraw the Motiton relating to the Order in view of the Report of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. That does not mean to say that another Order will not be laid which conforms with the terms of the Select Committee.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his decision to stifle debate on the Immigrants Bill? Is he aware that, following the stifling of full democratic discussion on the Industrial Relations Bill, his latest decision is hardly likely to expedite the return to normal relations in this House?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept that I am in any way stifling debate. I believe that there is every opportunity for consideration of the Immigrants Bill and that it will be best discussed in Standing Committee. I note that, whether Bills are taken in Standing Committee or on the Floor of the House, it seems difficult to please the Front Bench opposite.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would feel it right to press him on the matter raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) on what might appear to be a constituency point but which, as she made clear, raises issues of great principle? Will he give an undertaking that, once the Lord Chancellor has studied all the events in the case, we shall have a statement on the action to be taken by the Government to follow up what is a very clear decision of the highest courts in this country in a case of human interest involving a very wrong and very unfair decision that might go on for ever unless urgent action is taken?

Mr. Whitelaw

I recognise the importance of what the right hon. Gentleman has said following on the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward). I think I would be right at this stage merely to say that I will urgently consult my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. It is correct to give him an opportunity of considering the case, of which, I must say, I know very little myself. Once my noble and learned Friend has considered it, if it would seem right that a statement should be made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, it will be made.