HC Deb 09 March 1972 vol 832 cc1662-72
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)

The business for next week will be as follow:

MONDAY, 13TH MARCH.—Consideration of a timetable Motion for the remaining stages of the Housing Finance Bill.

Motions relating to Civil Aviation.

Second Reading of the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Bill.

TUESDAY, 14TH MARCH and WEDNESDAY, 15TH MARCH.—Further progress in Committee on the European Communities Bill.

Mr. William Hamilton

You will he lucky!

Mr. Whitelaw

THURSDAY, 16TH MARCH.—Supply (16th Allotted Day): Army Estimates, 1972–73, Vote A. The Question will be put on all outstanding Votes.

Remaining stages of the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Bill.

FRIDAY, 17TH MARCH.—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY, 20TH MARCH.—Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.

Mr. Wilson

The Leader of the House will understand if I do not express at length the contempt we feel for the decision to apply the guillotine to one of the worst and most reactionary Bills this House has seen in our time. The reason I will not do so is that I want to come to another important question. But is the right hon. Gentleman aware that only a few minutes before the Prime Minister is due to meet the T.U.C. to discuss inflation we hear that this highly inflationary Bill is now subject to a guillotine Motion. Five million families will know that the Bill is going through only because it is being bullied through the House.

My main question concerns Northern Ireland. It is 15 weeks since I put forward in the House the very detailed programme which I thought was accepted in all parts of the House, at least for discussion by all-party talks here, in talks between Westminster and Stormont and between Westminster, Stormont and Dublin. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that once it was made clear by the Government, by kite-flying and in other ways, that they would make their own initiative, I did not press further for these talks, and said last week that there was no need to rush them, but that we expected a statement soon? Is he aware of the grave damage being done in Northern Ireland by the Government's failure to agree on a statement? Will he now tell us, particularly since the debate on Northern Ireland that we asked for has long been promised by him, a debate which must take place after the statement, when we are to expect that statement?

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman knows he is receiving the full co-operation of the Opposition on the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Bill, obviously an essential Bill, in getting the Second Reading through at a most irregular hour, after 10 o'clock, and in completing the remaining stages. I hope some of his hon. Friends will appreciate our co-operation there, which is ill-deserved in view of what the right hon. Gentleman said about the other Measure earlier.

Mr. Whitelaw

Without going into the merits of the Housing Finance Bill, which have been extensively argued recently at Question Time, I must say that to talk about bullying the Measure through the House is straining the facts a bit far. After all, the Bill has already been debated for 189 hours in Committee. An extremely reasonable offer of time was made to the Opposition on a voluntary basis for further discussion of the Bill, which was turned down. I cannot see how in those circumstances the Motion can he considered as other than fully justified and absolutely in accordance with the precedents of Governments of all parties and all times, certainly for as long as I have known. The right hon. Gentleman has even longer experience.

As to Northern Ireland, I appreciate the forbearance of the House. A statement has been promised. I cannot tell the House when it will be made, but I shall certainly pass on the right hon. Gentleman's expression of urgency to my right hon. Friend the Home Secondary and to my other colleagues.

Mr. Orme

What has the Cabinet been discussing?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for the Opposition's co-operation on the early introduction of the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Bill, which is regarded as a very necessary Measure.

Mr. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the House very reluctantly passed through all its stages in one day the Northern Ireland Act, and we asked for an early debate. We have not pressed the question of all-party talks, on which there has been a great deal of feet-dragging by the Government, because of the understanding that there would be an early statement. We were always told that it would be next week when we read what was put out by the Government to the Press. Will there be a statement on Northern Ireland next week?

Mr. Whitelaw

To be fair, I have never told the House that there would be a statement next week.

An Hon. Member

My right hon. Friend did not say that the right hon. Gentleman did.

Mr. Whitelaw

I know, but I wanted to put my position firmly on the record. On the question of when statements are to be made in the House, I am the person entitled to be believed, and I did not say that a statement would be made next week. I cannot say when a statement will be made. If I could, I would certainly tell the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful!"] Hon. Members may think it disgraceful, but I have given an undertaking that I will give the information to the House as soon as I can.

Mr. Stratton Mills

If there is not to be a statement on Northern Ireland by the Government, could that be made clear?

Mr. Whitelaw

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear on Tuesday that a statement would be made.

Mr. Orme

Is the Leader of the House aware that there has been considerable patience on this side of the House over the Northern Ireland situation, that we have pressed for a debate but have not taken the matter any further? Is he aware that there is a strike throughout the whole of Northern Ireland this afternoon, called by a Protestant organisation, and that the Government's attitude is leading to increased trouble? It might not be putting it too high to say that the Government's inactivity could be leading to deaths in Northern Ireland, and something must be done about the situation. The Leader of the House has a responsibility to see that a statement is made in the House next week.

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. He would not expect me to be unaware of some of the facts to which he has referred. I am deeply aware of them, and deeply worried, as the whole House is, about the extremely difficult situation. I yield to no one in my concern about it. We all realise how desperately difficult and troublesome the situation is. I have said that a statement will be made and that I cannot say when. I cannot go further than that.

Mr. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, because it has been said in the House, that the Prime Minister and I have discussed the question on a number of occasions on Privy Councillor terms. These discussions have not, of course, been revealed. Because of them, I held my hand, and we showed great patience about the debate and cooperated on that most unusual and irregular Act. In those circumstances, since I see no reason why there cannot be a statement on behalf of the Government, will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that it will be made not necessarily by the Home Secretary, to whom he referred, but by the Prime Minister, as any measures taken may also affect defence and the Secretary of State for Defence is in another place?

Mr. Whitelaw

I naturally recognise all those matters that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I appreciate the forbearance that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have shown. In saying that I would make representations to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I also said "and to my other colleagues". I realise the prime importance of the matter. I cannot say who will make such a statement, or when. I assure the whole House that I will make the strongest representations to my colleagues indicating exactly the feelings of the House, as is my duty in accordance with my position as Leader of the House, quite apart from my position in the Government.

Several Hon Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will not stop Questions now, but I remind the House that there is to be an important debate on Welsh affairs. Many Welsh Members want to take part, and, therefore, I hope that hon. Members will seek to catch my eye now only for supplementary questions which they think to be really important.

Sir Gilbert Longden

Will my right hon. Friend make it abundantly clear that the Opposition in Standing Committee E were offered the opportunity to debate the Housing Finance Bill from Monday to Friday inclusive every week and turned the offer down? As a member of the Committee, I was thankful for that, but at least they had the opportunity.

Mr. Whitelaw

I can confirm what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Crosland

It was an outrageous proposition.

Mr. Whitelaw

The right hon. Gentleman might remember that there was another proposal also turned down by the Opposition, which even by his standards must be regarded as very reasonable, a proposal that by a certain date, quite a long way off, the Committee might complete its consideration of the Bill sitting as and when the Opposition desired, at whatever hours and on whichever days they desired, to finish what were, after all, only 30 Clauses.

Mr. Crosland

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the offer he calls so generous was that with 30 Clauses, five Schedules, and new Clauses still to come, all that was to be completed in rather less than three weeks, and that the offer was totally unacceptable to the Opposition on a Bill so vital and controversial?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think the offer was of more than four weeks. The offer was far more generous than ever reached my ears from a Labour Government during my six years in opposition.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I apologise for intervening again, but we shall debate this matter on Monday. I hope we shall not continue to debate it now.

Mr. Burden

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention again to Motion No. 218 on legislation to ban the I.R.A. and to stop the continued flow of money from this country to Southern Ireland to buy weapons for use against British troops in Northern Ireland?

[That this House urges Her Majesty's Government to make the Irish Republican Army an illegal organisation, in view of the fact that it is raising money in the United Kingdom and elsewhere with the express purpose of mounting murderous attacks upon the Forces of the Crown and civilians and thereby attempting to create a state of anarchy.]

This is a subject causing great concern. There has been a further number of collections this week and a further outflow of money for that purpose. It is time something was done to stop such collections.

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall certainly note this Motion in view of the extremely difficult situation in Northern Ireland. I would like to say that I could give time for a debate, but I do not think I can.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Could the Leader of the House indicate whether it is his intention to make a statement next week expanding on the speech he made yesterday to the Council of the Newspaper Society indicating that it was the Government's intention to restore the statutory right for local newspapers to participate in the owning of the local commercial radio stations? Was this a clear statement of the Government's intention about the Clause which was delted by the Standing Committee considering the Sound Broadcasting Bill?

Mr. Whitelaw

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be good enough to read exactly what I said and the very careful words I used. I shall not repeat Ahem, because I might not get them right again, but I chose them very carefully to safeguard the proper position of this House.

Mr. James Hamilton

Would the Leader of the House tell us when the Government intend to afford us the opportunity to discuss local government reform in Scotland, bearing in mind that all other organisations outside this House are now having discussions on the subject? Ought not Members of Parliament to be afforded the opportunity of discussing it in this House?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am afraid I cannot promise time in the near future. I shall not revert to my proposal that the matter might be discussed in the Scottish Grand Committee, because I know that does not find favour with Scottish Members. I cannot promise to give time in the near future.

Mr. Wilkinson

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he could afford time before Easter for a debate on foreign affairs? There are a great many issues of widespread concern, as instanced by Early-day Motion No. 175, which now has over 70 signatures.

[That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to make renewed representations to the Government of Bangladesh that maximum protection be given to the Biharis and other Urdu-speaking people.]

Mr. Whitelaw

I am afraid it is clear that I shall not be able to give time for such a Motion before Easter.

Mr. Harold Walker

The Leader of the House will have seen the Prayer standing in my name and the names of other hon. Members regarding the Parochial Fees Order, 1972. Can he say when he intends to give time to debate this proposal, which relates to a massive increase in church charges of 100 per cent.?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am afraid I cannot say that I will give time, but I shall look into the matter as soon as I can.

Sir G. Nabarro

Will my right hon. Friend confer with the Secretary of State for the Environment on the critical position which is developing with regard to railwaymen's wages and arrange for a statement to be made next week, in order to prevent the Government being overtaken by a position similar to that which developed with the miners' strike? Sooner or later the Government will have to intervene in this exercise of deficit financing in a nationalised industry.

Mr. Whitelaw

I think my hon. Friend knows that important negotiations are continuing, and it would be most unwise for me to make any comments one way or the other. It would not be right for me to do so. If there is any news to be given to the House, naturally my right hon. Friends concerned will come and give it.

Mr. Urwin

In view of the fact that the House will today be debating the failure of the Government's policies in Wales, does the Leader of the House realise that the problems there are similar to those in the other major development areas? Will he please try to find time at an early date to discuss the very serious situation in the Northern Region?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am afraid I could not offer Government time, although I know this is an important subject. Naturally, I am aware of this.

Mr. Edelman

Has the Leader of the House given attention to the Motion dealing with the grave situation in the machine tool industry and, in the light of that, will he not find time, especially because of the general public disquiet, to debate this subject as soon as possible?

[That this House, gravely concerned about the crisis in the machine tool industry and, in particular about the decision of Alfred Herbert Limited, Coventry to make a further 530 workers redundant, with the serious consequences which will flow from this in wider areas, notably in the Churchill Machine Tool Company, Manchester, calls on Her Majesty's Government to use the occasion of the Bridget to make capital available, as a matter of urgency, to the machine tool industry to stop this dangerous decline, to assist the modernisation and re-equipment of British industry, and ensure full and stable employment.]

Mr. Whitelaw

I note the Motion, and I appreciate its importance to our national economy, but I am afraid I could not offer time for debate in the near future.

Mr. Cormack

Could the Leader of the House tell us when we are likely to have time to debate the proposal on the hideously soulless new parliamentary building?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will wish for time to consider the various buildings. They will be considered by the Services Committee first, and then we shall come forward with considerations for the House, and the House will be able at that stage to make up its mind.

Mr. Pardoe

Could I ask the Leader of the House whether he will give attention to Early-day Motion No. 247 on the tribunal to look into the Vehicle and General Insurance Co.?

[That this House notes that it is now three weeks since the publication of the Report of Tribunal appointed to inquire into certain issues in relation to the circumstances leading up to the cessation of trading by the Vehicle and General Insurance Company Limited, and that the Government has neither accepted nor rejected the Report; recognises that any further delay in arriving at a decision will impose a most unfair burden on those civil servants named in the Report; urges the Government to make an immediate statement as to whether it accepts or rejects the report and the reasons why no Ministers, either past or present, were called to give evidence; and calls for an early debate in Government time.]

Does he recognise that it is three weeks since the report was published, that there has been no acceptance or rejection by the Government and that it would be quite wrong to allow this to go on any longer because there are several civil servants with most unjustifiable clouds over their heads? Will he ensure that an early statement is made?

Mr. Whitelaw

I certainly appreciate the importance of what the hon. Member says, particularly about this affecting the staff, which is, I accept, a grave matter. I cannot say when a statement will be made, nor the time when it will be debated. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised a debate on this matter in Government time, and there will be a debate. However, I will refer what the hon. Gentleman says to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Benn

Following on what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) said about the situation in Coventry affecting his own constituents in the machine tool industry, would the Leader of the House seek, with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, an early debate on industrial policy, because there are a number of issues which give cause for concern and we would like an opportunity for the Secretary of State to explain the new policy that he is now adopting?

Mr. Whitelaw

Some of these matters are, clearly, for debate in the economic debate following the Budget Statement, but I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Speaker

I would remind hon. Members that this is an Opposition Supply Day. I shall call two more hon. Members.

Mr. Molloy

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the idea of having a guillotine debate on Monday? Does he understand that this Bill is, in our view, a very discriminatory Bill and that if it became an Act it would add to the inflationary spiral and the problems of this country? Most important, I ask him to consider the point that it makes very serious inroads, in our view, on the traditional freedom of British local government. For that reason, if for no other, he ought not to allow this issue to be subjected to the guillotine.

Mr. Whitelaw

All this can be discussed on Monday. I think that 189 hours of debate in Committee is really by any standards quite a long time and far more than most Bills have had. Secondly, the time that will be allotted under the timetable Motion will, in my judgment, be generous for what is needed. I think, therefore, that I am largely meeting this point.

Dr. Gilbert

Would the right hon. Gentleman clear up the confusion that has arisen about the exact words he used in an important passage in his speech last Wednesday. In HANSARD he is quoted as saying: Once it is signed, it"— that is the Executive— has to come to Parliament before ratification, and that is what, with the Bill, it is seeking to do."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1972; Vol. 832, c. 444.] The Times of the same day reported the hon. Gentleman's words as follows: Once it is signed the Executive has to come to Parliament for the legal decision of then being able subsequently to ratify the Treaty. I raise this—and the right hon. Gentleman has had notice—because all the reports in the National Press—The Guardian, the Scotsman, the Birmingham Post and the Glasgow Herald—are virtually identical with that of The Times.

The right hon. Gentleman has given an assurance—and I accept it—that there has been no interference with HANSARD, but it would be useful for the House if we could know precisely what he did say on that occasion.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Member who wrote to me about this. I have examined the references to which he refers and I cannot see any real conflict between the various reports. On reading them, I do not think my words achieved that precision which I would naturally wish to give to the House. If that is the case I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman, and, indeed, to the House, which I certainly do. The exact position was fully set out in the same debate by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and on other occasions by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who are much more learned than I am and whose words achieved the exact precision which mine, clearly, did not do on that particular occasion.