HC Deb 23 March 1972 vol 833 cc1679-87
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 follows:

MONDAY, 27TH MARCH.—Conclusion of the debate on the Budget.

Motion on the Regional Employment Premium (Continuation of Payment) Order.

Remaining stages of the Road Traffic Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY, 28TH MARCH.—Progress on the remaining stages of the Sound Broadcasting Bill.

Motions on the Farm Capital Grant (Variation) Scheme.

WEDNESDAY, 29TH MARCH.—Completion of the remaining stages of the Sound Broadcasting Bill.

THURSDAY, 30TH MARCH.—It will be proposed that the House should meet at 11 a.m., take Questions until 12 noon and adjourn at 5 p.m. until Monday, 10th April.

Mr. Wilson

Since I understand that there is to be no statement on the Northern Ireland discussions today, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman this question? Although I do not press him about the next stage, if any, of the discussions, would he undertake that as soon as the situation is clarified—I do not suggest it should be earlier than that—a statement will be made to the House at the earliest possible moment? Is he aware that if a decision is reached in time it will be better to make a statement by interrupting business at 10 o'clock tonight, or as I am sure the House would agree on so grave a matter as this, that there should be a statement tomorrow morning at 11 o'clock? Is he further aware that for such a statement to have to wait over the weekend, although it might suit the convenience of the House in other ways, would open up the possibility of leaks in Belfast and subsequent rumours, with all the dangers that might follow? Does he recognise that it would be unacceptable to the House if the House were not told first, just as I believe it would be unacceptable to the right hon. Gentleman in his position as Leader of the House?

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there has so far been no statement by the Home Secretary about the action of the police in many raids carried out all over the country, and that some extremely disturbing information has now come to light in the Press? Whatever may have been the motives for the raids, particularly in relation to the retention of documents which have nothing to do with threats of violence, will he press his right hon. Friend to take an early opportunity to make a statement to the House? Otherwise there will be the strongest desire for this matter to be debated on the Adjournment of the House next week.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put his first point. I assure him that a statement will be made to the House as soon as it possibly can be. I think that I should not go further than that. On the second point, I have made representations to my right hon. Friend, and the situation remains exactly as it was when I set out the legal position last week.

Mr. Kilfedder

Is my right hon. Friend aware that both wings of the I.R.A. are stepping up the foul campaign of forcing the Government to make hasty decisions? Could it be made clear that if the statement is delayed over the weekend murder and mutilation will be deplored—and in the present situation that is too weak a word—by hon. Members on both sides of the House?

Mr. Whitelaw

I agree, as I am sure does the whole House, with my hon. Friend's view that violence of any sort is to be utterly condemned. In regard to any question of a statement, I have nothing to add to what I said to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Ashley

Am I right in understanding that the right hon. Gentleman has said that before Easter there will be a debate on televising the proceedings of the House? If not would he clarify his thinking on this matter?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman did not misunderstand me; that is what I said. I have failed to do so, and I apologise to the House, but there have been other factors which have made it difficult for me to have such a debate before Easter.

Mr. Hastings

In regard to the raids which took place in the early hours of the morning, and which were referred to by the Leader of the Opposition, would my right hon. Friend not agree that if a statement is to be made about this matter it would also be helpful to the House to have a statement on the aims and objectives of the International Socialists and what they are up to?

Mr. Whitelaw

I set out the position, correctly as I understood it, last week and I have nothing further to add to what I then said.

Mr. Foley

If I may revert to the question of a statement on Northern Ireland, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that this is probably the major political issue before the Government and the nation today? Will he give an undertaking that there will be a statement and an opportunity of a debate before the Easter Recess?

Mr. Whitelaw

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the serious nature of the problem to which he refers. However, it would not be right for me in the circumstances to go any further than I have already gone in answer to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. McMaster

Is my hon. Friend aware that what is of maximum importance is that the agreement should be correct and acceptable to all members of the community on both sides, and that the Government should not be under pressure from anybody in this country or in Northern Ireland to make an early statement? Since this matter is of such supreme importance, is it not necessary to get any such statement completely right?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what my hon. Friend says, and I have nothing further to add on the question of a statement.

Mr. Latham

In contrast to what happened in the House yesterday, could the right hon. Gentleman assure me that before the Easter Recess he will not come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement about cats and mice but that, instead, we shall have a statement from a Minister in the Department of the Environment so that we may have a chance to question him about interference with the traditional rights of free speech and public assembly in Trafalgar Square, the banning of which this coming Sunday may provoke more trouble than it prevents?

The Speaker

Order. I think I can help the hon. Member by informing him that I have selected that subject as one of the items to be discussed in the debates on the Adjournment.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what Mr. Speaker has said. It enables me to know something of which I was not previously aware. I do not quite see the connection between cats and mice and the other matter to which the hon. Gentleman draw attention. I did not seek to come to the House to make a statement on cats and mice; I was asked a question about that subject. If one is asked a question about something in this House, one must reply to it.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members in all quarters share the view expressed by the Leader of the Opposition that the Government will have to decide the moment to come to the House and make a statement on Northern Ireland? The right hon. Gentleman asked whether such a statement could be made before the weekend, and the Leader of the House said he could not give an answer to that question. Could he at least say that the House will certainly have a statement before we go away for the Easter Recess?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, I can certainly give that assurance.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I support what was said by the Leader of the Opposition about the desirability of a statement before the weekend since Government policy can only be harmed by a further weekend of Press speculation? Is it not possible that the activities of the I.R.A. are directed towards holding up Government policy in this regard rather than hastening it on?

Mr. Whitelaw

I feel I should not be drawn into any of these matters on either side of the question, except to say that I have nothing further to add to what I said to the Leader of the Opposition. I feel that in the circumstances what I said was as forthcoming as it could possibly be.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I think that the right hon. Gentleman understood the purport of what I asked before. However, some confusion may have arisen as a result of one or two questions which have been asked since. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I was not saying that it was desirable to rush a decision unduly? There have been long delays over the past weeks, but it would be wrong now to rush a decision and perhaps get the wrong one. All that I was asking the right hon. Gentleman, especially in relation to the weekend, was that if a decision were reached it should be given to the House even at an inconvenient hour because once a decision is reached it will leak and there will be rumours. It will be better for this House, the country and, above all, Northern Ireland to have the correct facts whether it is before the weekend or whether it has to wait until the beginning of next week.

Mr. Whitelaw

I thought that that was the position to which I was replying in saying that a statement would be made as soon as possible. "As soon as possible" means that as soon as a decision has been reached it will immediately be made known to this House.

Mr. John Mendelson

Quite apart from the request for a statement which has been made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, will the right hon. Gentleman recall that the Opposition rightly facilitated the passing in one day of the legislation which the Government required for the Army in Northern Ireland, and that the right hon. Gentleman undertook that there would be a full day's debate in Government time—[An Hon. Member: "Speak for yourself."] I am speaking for myself when I say that the Opposition rightly facilitated the passing of that legislation, though I do not believe that I speak entirely for myself when I say it. But will the Leader of the House now say that after a statement has been made it will be desirable to have a debate before the House adjourns for Easter? It is very important that the recess should not intervene without Parliament having an opportunity to bring its mind to bear on the Government's proposals.

Mr. Whitelaw

I note the importance of that remark. At this stage I think it is right to go no further than what I have said about a statement. But I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says.

Sir C. Taylor

Why do not the Government declare the I.R.A. an illegal organisation in the United Kingdom? Surely that would have the effect of dissuading university students from collecting money for arms to be used against British troops.

Mr. Russell Kerr

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not this a policy question and not a matter of business? Cannot the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) be directed in that sense?

Mr. Speaker

I was finding difficulty in reconciling the hon. Gentleman's question with the business for next week.

Mr. Whitelaw

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary answered a Question on that subject earlier this afternoon.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Is the Leader of the House aware that there are 10 Private Members' Bills in the queue for Standing Committee C and that the Bill at present committed to it, the Night Assemblies Bill, apart from being a severe threat to our civil liberties, is a vicious attack on young people? Will he consider allocating some of these Private Members' Bills now in the queue to other Standing Committees as they become vacant?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have always adopted what I consider to be the wise posture for a Leader of the House. That is how Private Members' Bills and business should be conducted within the normal confines of the time allotted for Private Members' Bills and business. I must keep to that position.

Mr. Blaker

With regard to my right hon. Friend's reply to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), will my right hon. Friend go a little further? He will be aware that a substantial number of hon. Members would like to have a debate on the televising of the proceedings of this House. While we understand why my right hon. Friend has not been able to arrange such a debate, will he assure us that he will do his best to do so before long?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have promised that there will be a debate on the televising of the proceedings of this House which I think it is generally agreed should arise on a Motion put forward by Private Members, and time will be found for that.

Mr. Fitt

Reverting again to Northern Ireland, is the Leader of the House aware that at the present moment in Belfast rumours are circulating to the effect that the Northern Ireland Cabinet has completely rejected the package offered by the United Kingdom Government, and that there is a good deal of fear, uncertainty and rumour in Northern Ireland which could lead to communal violence and disturbances over the coming week end? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, further, that the only way that this possibility can be prevented is for those fears and suspicions to be removed, and that they can be removed only by a very quick policy statement from his Government? If there is trouble over the weekend due to people's fears and uncertainties, responsibility will rest fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the right hon. Gentleman's Government.

Mr. Whitelaw

I think I can best serve this House, this country and the community in Northern Ireland by being very careful not to be drawn into making any comment at all. Therefore, I simply say that I have nothing to add to what I said to the Leader of the Opposition; a statement will be made as soon as possible.

Mr. James Hamilton

Considering the very many representations which have been made to the Leader of the House to allow us to discuss the reform of local government in Scotland, and realising that all associations are discussing it whereas Members of Parliament have been denied the right to discuss it, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that, if not before Easter, very shortly after Easter we shall have an opportunity to debate this matter in the House?

Mr. Whitelaw

I recognise the persistence with which right hon. and hon. Mem- bers representing Scottish constituencies have put this point to me. I recognise also that they certainly have a case and that the matter should be debated. However, I cannot say that I shall be able to offer time in the near future. But I note sympathetically the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Referring again to the recent police raids, will the Leader of the House consider stepping up the level of representations to his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary? While the Opposition agree that it is crucial that the perpetrators of the Aldershot outrage should be brought to book, it is not a crime to belong to the International Socialist movement and to express those views. We on this side of the House are concerned that an avoidable muddle between the two positions may be arising.

Mr. Whitelaw

There is no need for any particular level of communication between me and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, since he is sitting beside me and has heard what has been said.

Mr. Atkinson

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify what he said earlier about a statement? Is he aware that there are some very well respected members of the Labour Party in my constituency, as well as members of my local authority, whose homes were raided at 6 o'clock that morning by members of the Special Branch, and that those people had never had anything to do with Irish politics—[Hon. Members: "How do you know?".] I know them personally. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about political investigations, he wants to investigate the past records of some of his hon. Friends—[Interruption.] They have much more to hide—[Interruption]—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must realise that if they make provocative noises they arouse that sort of comment. Mr. Atkinson.

Mr. Atkinson

They are likely to get much more than provocative noises from me—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I called the hon. Gentleman to ask a question.

Mr. Atkinson

I hope the Leader of the House will clarify the position when he says that we shall have this statement as soon as possible, since there is concern on this side of the House about an infringement of our civil liberties, and, therefore, we ought to be able to debate the matter as soon as possible.

Mr. Whitelaw

Perhaps I should say to the hon. Gentleman that he will appreciate that I have not been conducting political investigations. I believe that he suggested at one moment that I had been. I do not think that there is any suggestion that I have been. But I have nothing to add to the clear statement that I made last week about the legal position. On that point, I must rest.