HC Deb 27 May 1971 vol 818 cc577-86
Mr. Harold Wilson

May I ask the Leader of the House if he will kindly state the business for the week after the Whitsun Recess?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for the first week after the Whitsun Adjournment will be:

TUESDAY, 8TH JUNE—Supply [21st Allotted Day]: A debate on the Armed Forces.

Remaining stages of the Law Reform (Jurisdiction in Delict) (Scotland) Bill.

WEDNESDAY, 9TH JUNE—A debate on Overseas aid.

Motions on the International Development Association (Third Replenishment) Orders.

THURSDAY, 10TH JUNE—A debate on Welsh affairs.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Highways Bill.

FRIDAY, 11TH JUNE—A debate on a Motion to take note of the Report of the Littlewood Committee on Experiments on Animals, Command No. 2641.

Mr. Harold Wilson

While wishing the right hon. Gentleman personally an enjoyable recess, may I ask whether he is aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly younger Members with young families, are finding it difficult to plan their arrangements for the following recess? [Interruption.] It is a matter of very great difficulty for those with young children at school who want to plan a summer holiday. Is the right hon. Gentleman in a position to indicate when he hopes these hon. Members and their families will be able to make such plans?

Secondly, in view of the strong feeling of the House expressed earlier in the week about the form of the debate when the negotiations in Brussels are completed, is he now in a position to give the House the benefit of any further reconsideration by the Government in view of the representations which were made from both sides on Monday?

Mr. Whitelaw

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind wishes, which do not seem to be held by all hon. Members, but I fully understand, and I heartily reciprocate kind wishes to him.

Concerning his first point about the date of the next recess, I appreciate his right and proper point about hon. Members making their plans, particularly those with young families. At this stage, I must confine myself to a time-honoured and somewhat unhelpful reply: that the date is bound to depend on the progress of business. However, I recognise the importance of the point.

On his second point, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in answer to a Question on Tuesday, it is impossible to forecast when a White Paper on the result of the negotiations can be published. At this stage, therefore, no decision can be taken about the timing of debates in this House. I will, however, undertake that before any decision is taken there will continue to be the fullest possible consultation.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we naturally understand that it is impossible to forecast the date of the conclusion of the negotiations? Certainly no one on this side of the House is pressing the Government to rush the negotiations in order that the matter can be debated at any particular time. Indeed, we have always taken the other point of view, which may be wrong, that it is more important to get the right terms than to get quick terms. In these circumstances, is he aware that, whenever the White Paper is published, it is essential that the House and the country should have adequate time to consider it before there is a debate? The later the publication of the White Paper the more difficult that becomes, unless the Government clearly understand that the House ought not to be asked for a decision until the autumn when there has been adequate consideration by constituencies and then by hon. Members in consultation with their constituents.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his assurance, because we must have continuing consultation, but would it not help if some Ministers would stop indicating various bright ideas of their own which cause a great deal of unsettlement and concern because of the feeling that the Government have already made up their mind?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. I am grateful, because it helps me to know his feelings on this matter. [Laughter.] I did not mean that to be funny in any way. I am sorry that it was taken in that way. I suppose that I am funny when I do not mean to be and not funny when I try to be. I should like to make one thing absolutely clear, as I did in my original answer to the right hon. Gentleman. No decision has been taken. Therefore, any speculation about decisions is purely speculation. When a decision on this matter has been taken, after the fullest consultation, it will be announced to the House. Therefore, any other comments or anything else are purely speculation at this stage, and must remain so until we know when a White Paper can be published, have the consultations and decide how best the whole matter can be handled in this House.

Captain W. Elliot

As regards the debate on Tuesday on the Armed Forces, what form will it take? Is it at the request of the Opposition, or is it on the Adjournment?

Mr. Whitelaw

The debate will be on the Adjournment. I would remind the House of what we have been trying to do about Service debates this year. In the past, there has always been a complaint that they were grouped far too closely together. This is, of course, the fourth day. In the past, there have normally been up to three hours, in theory at any rate, on each of the Forces. It was hoped that it would be better not to group them together but to have them later throughout the year and, therefore, to have a gap between them. We have tried this. I am not sure whether the House likes it or not. If it does not like it, it can go back to old procedure another year. This is simply the fourth day on the Service Votes, which used in the past to be grouped together.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is the right hon. Gentleman fully seized of the idea that when the decision has to be taken to go into Europe hon. Members on both sides want to have a plain vote based upon the issues at stake and that neither the dissentients nor the others on either side wish to be misled by voting on some stratagem or other?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. We can consider and discuss all these matters. I would only repeat what I said to the Leader of the Opposition: I read all sorts of speculations—sometimes even about what I may or may not have said—and all these are pure speculation. The answer is: no decision has been taken in any way as to how this matter should be handled in the House.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that some speculations are considered, both by hon. Members and by people outside, to be more authoritative perhaps than others? In that context, has he seen the suggestion in this morning's Times from the usually well-informed pen of Mr. David Wood, and would he tell the House quite clearly that the Government do not intend to proceed on the lines there suggested?

Mr. Whitelaw

I can simply stick—this is the only proper thing for me to do at this stage—to the simple formula: no decision at all has been taken, there will be the fullest possible consultation before any decision is taken, and we cannot take a decision until we know what the timing of the White Paper is likely to be.

Mr. John Mendelson

Referring to what the right hon. Gentleman said, that people referred to statements which he is alleged to have made, may I take him on to the firmer ground of the exchanges on 13th May, when he was first asked about the timing of this debate? He then replied, both to me and later, more affirmatively, to the Leader of the Opposition, that he would consider seriously the possibility of a preliminary debate. Has he not been made to retreat from that position, either by the Prime Minister or by other combined political influences? Would he not now give the House a firm assurance that in view of the extraordinary constitutional importance of this matter, the House must have a preliminary debate before the Government come to Parliament to ask for authority to sign a treaty to enter the Common Market?

Mr. Whitelaw

I will not seek to repeat the words which I used then. I would be ready to do so, however, and I have certainly not retreated. Indeed, in the answer which I just gave to the Leader of the Opposition, I referred to the fact that no decision can be taken about the timing of "debates"—in the plural: I particularly used that word to leave all the options open. It is right that the House should leave all the options open, and that is what I did.

Mr. Fell

Following upon the Leader of the Opposition's questions, is it possible to help the British people by at least telling them that they will have time, after the White Paper has been published, to consider the issues in it before the House is pressed to a vote on it?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have made it perfectly clear—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am sorry; then it is my fault. I will try again. What I have said is that the first thing is that we none of us know when the White Paper can be published. Until one knows that, one cannot conceivably know anything about the timings—[Interruption.] I do not see how one can. Therefore, I simply say that I have undertaken to have the fullest possible consultation before any decision is taken. If consultation means anything, it means that I will listen to all the views before taking any decision. I suggest that at this stage it is not wise to fix particular months for particular debates when one does not know when the White Paper will be published.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman seems to be confusing uncertainty about debates with a clear decision on principle. Does he not recognise that the whole House understands that neither he nor anyone can forecast the date of the publication of the White Paper? But does he not further realise that the Government are perfectly capable of taking a decision on principle, now, that there will be no basic decision by this House to enter or not to enter on the White Paper before the Summer Recess? Can he not take that decision? Can he not tell us now that there will be no debate in which the House was to make a decision?

Whether the White Paper is published at the end of June or the middle of July, it is still not long enough, particularly with so many people away. The right hon. Gentleman says that there will have to be consultations, but he sounded as if he was saying that the consultations will only be after the date of the White Paper becomes known. But should he not start having consultations now on the issue of principle, which a large number of Members feel—that the House should not be rushed into a decision before the Summer Recess?

Mr. Whitelaw

In my original answer to the right hon. Gentleman, I again very carefully used a particular word. I said that I would undertake that before any decision is taken there will "continue" to be the fullest consultation. I undertake that. From now on, there will continue to be the fullest consultation. That is the right way to proceed, and that is what I will undertake.

Mr. Longden

Rather than leave the whole decision over until the autumn, may I, most tentatively, suggest a programme for my right hon. Friend? When the White Paper appears, we should have a debate to take note in this House, but no vote. We should then adjourn for four weeks, during which time hon. Members should go to their constituencies and explain to them what it is in aid of—

Hon. Members

In August?

Mr. Longden

I hope not in August, but if necessary, yes, in August. And then we should return for one week to debate whether or not we should go into the Common Market, giving time for every Member of Parliament who wishes to speak to this House to do so.

Mr. Whitelaw

I certainly note my hon. Friend's points, as one of the many solutions and ideas put forward. I will undertake that all this will be considered before any decision is taken.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call any more right hon. or hon Members, I would remind the House that the business statement related to business for the first week after the Whitsuntide Adjournment.

Mr. David Steel

On another topic, when does the right hon. Gentleman expect to be able to start the Report stage of the Immigration Bill? Does he think that it will be the week after we return?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall have to await a later time before I can give that answer.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In view of what you just said, Mr. Speaker, may I ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance that we shall not be asked to take a final decision in the first week after we return from the Whitsun Recess?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, Sir.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu

When the House debates this matter after the recess, will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to see that there is here a certain number of fences which can be sat on by right hon. and hon. Members?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think the best reply I can give the hon. and learned Gentleman is that I have noted his remarks.

Mr. Sandys

Is it not rather significant that the opponents of Britain's entry into the Common Market are concentrating more and more on the question of timing rather than on the basic issues involved?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is a matter for them rather than for me to explain.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Will the Leader of the House, in answering that question from his right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys), be fair to all hon. Members, be they for or against? As far as I know, the position of all hon. Members is that they are waiting to see what terms emerge from the negotiations. That was the position as stated in the manifesto of hon. Gentlemen opposite at the last election, on which they secured election. It was the position of the former Labour Government; and when I said that it was my position last week the Home Secretary agreed with me. May we be told if there is an occupant of the Front Bench opposite who does not take that position?

Mr. Whitelaw

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point with which no hon. Member will wish to argue.

Mr. Coleman

Considering what Mr. Speaker said about business after the Recess, may I ask the Leader of the House, concerning the Welsh debate, for an assurance that the White Paper on Welsh matters will be available in adequate time for hon. Members to discuss it in the debate? What arrangements will be made to ensure that the document is in the hands of hon. Members in time?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have been anxious to make sure that the White Paper is available as long as possible before the debate on Welsh affairs, I have today been in touch with those concerned and I have been able to arrange for the White Paper to be published on Friday, 4th June. It will be available at the Welsh Office in Cardiff on that day. Copies will be sent to all Welsh hon. Members, who should receive them on the Saturday.

Dame Irene Ward

Has my right hon. Friend noticed the extraordinary increase in price of the marine services of the Board of Trade? Will he ask somebody during the recess to find out why this has happened? Does he think that I will be in order in speaking on this subject in the Service debate which will take place on the day we return?

Mr. Whitelaw

The answer to the first part of that question is that I will certainly call the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to my hon. Friend's remarks. The answer to the second part is that she will know, from her long experience here, that that is a matter for Mr. Speaker and not for me.

Mr. Jay

To avoid more of the speculation of which the right hon. Gentleman complains, will the Government be making a clear announcement in the next parliamentary week about just how they propose to consult the British electorate on the important matter of the Government's Common Market policy?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have undertaken all along that there will be the fullest consultation before we make any decision as to how to handle these matters in Parliament, and that must depend on the progress of the negotiations and the timing of the White Paper.

Mr. Money

Early in the Session my right hon. Friend was good enough to say that he would consider providing a chance for a debate to take place on the recommendations of the Ashby Committee on pollution. Can he give a further indication on this issue?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am afraid that I cannot give a further indication about consideration of that report. I have been able to satisfy those who have been pressing me for a debate on the Little-wood Report, and that will occur the week after next. Those who have been pressing me for a debate on overseas aid may perhaps regard that as a useful precedent, though it is dangerous to believe in it too far in respect of other reports.

Mr. Heffer

Would the Leader of the House answer four brief questions? First, when will the names of the members of the committee which will inquire into so-called top salaries be announced? [Interruption.] They are bottom salaries as far as I am concerned. Secondly, when will we debate the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board? Thirdly, to help him with his timetable, may I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman drops the Industrial Relations Bill, so enabling us to get away for August?

Fourthly, returning to what has been said about the need for a debate and full consultation before any decision is taken about our entry into the Common Market, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many hon. Members, irrespective of whether they are for or against entry, are suspicious because the right hon. Gentleman will not give a firm assurance that no decision will be reached before the Summer Recess?

May we have a clear assurance that no decision of this House will be sought and that hon. Members will have ample opportunity to consult their constituents to the fullest degree and test their feelings in this matter? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware how essential it is that the British people as a whole are asked for their opinions on this momentous decision?

Mr. Whitelaw

The answer to the first part of that question is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today announcing the names of Lord Boyle's review body. They will be able to start work immediately on Ministers' and hon. Members" salaries. The answer to the second part, about the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, is that the Bill is still before an Opposed Bill Committee. The answer to the third part, about withdrawing the Industrial Relations Bill, is "No". The answer to the fourth part is that there is no need for suspicion. I have given a clear assurance that there will be the fullest consultation before any decision is taken, and I stand by that.

Mrs. Castle

Further to my hon. Friend's question about the Industrial Relations Bill, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to indicate when he expects to get that Measure back from the House of Lords?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is not something within my control. Indeed, I suspect that the right hon. Lady may have a better idea than I have about what is likely to happen in this context.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.

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