HC Deb 23 October 1972 vol 843 cc821-6

4.35 p.m.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

On a point of order. We are supposed to be debating 633 Lords Amendments, which were dealt with in another place up to Thursday of last week. Some of us have tried to obtain copies of them, only to find that we could not do so until today. This seems to us a scandalous case of a Government determined to get through what is in effect a new Bill—633 Amendments covering 92 pages, or roughly two and a half times the length of the European Communities Bill—in three days, without giving hon. Members on either side any real opportunity to read the Amendments, let alone to debate them and still less, having read them, to move Amendments to them.

I shudder to think what would have happened if the previous Government had given even a gap of four or five days. There would have been justifiable complaints from all over the House. For the present Government to do it seems to me utterly wrong.

What we are supposed to be debating is the whole future of local Government in this country. One noble Lord said that this would be the local government set-up for the next 100 years. If we are to go through 633 Amendments just like that, hardly paying any attention to them, it bodes very ill for the future of local government and even worse for the future of local democracy.

The Minister has probably had only slightly more time than I to look at these Amendments and I acquit him of any responsibility in this matter. But he might have a word with the Leader of the House—I am sorry that he is not here but perhaps a discussion might be arranged behind your Chair, Sir—and this consideration of Lords Amendments might be adjourned to a more suitable time, when every hon. Member will have had a chance of studying all 633 of them. I suggest that such a date might be Tuesday of next week.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I cannot help but have sympathy with the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin). I appreciate that we have all been given a very short period in which to deal with these Amendments. The 633, of course, contain a large proportion which are purely drafting, a large proportion which are technical and a large proportion which are consolidation. The rest are improvements to the Bill which were agreed on both sides of this House and both sides of another place.

It has been the determination of both sides that this Bill should be a Parliament rather than a Government Bill, and it naturally follows that there have had to be many Amendments and a good deal of give-and-take throughout. It is unfortunate that this procedure has meant that we have run short of time and have had to put it before the House in this short period. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman or the House will find as much difficulty as he has expressed in dealing with these Amendments.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Local Government and Development has not done justice to the House or to my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin). I have glanced at some of these Amendments but have certainly not read them all. It is the custom of hon. Members to consult interested parties outside the House whose future is at stake in any Amendments which are proposed. Since we have received these Amendments only today, nobody except Ministers—and they have not had much of a chance—has read these Amendments. We have had them in our hands for only a few hours.

If the Lords were able to take weeks discussing these Amendments, surely we are entitled to have a little further time in which to consider their contents so that we may have an intelligent debate. Major alterations have been made to local boundaries and controversial decisions have been taken. The Minister knows that these matters are by no means non-controversial. Therefore, the Government owes it to the Opposition, and to local government, to give us further time to consider these Amendments before we can get on with the debate.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

Further to that point of order—

Mr. Speaker

I am not sure to what extent these matters are points of order, but at the moment I am accepting temporarily that they are.

Mr. Blenkinsop

This is a serious matter for all who are concerned with the provisions of the Bill. Hon. Members who represent areas outside London are placed in an impossible position. I left instructions at the House to send any Lords Amendments to me on Tyneside as early as possible. What happened was that I received them only this morning, just before catching my flight to London. This is not good enough for those of us who are deeply concerned with these matters. I do not believe there has ever been an occasion when we have faced a situation quite like this. It is not true to say that these Amendments contain no matters of consequence. Therefore, it is crucial that further time must be given to enable us to look at the Amendments which we are supposed to be discussing today, for we may well want to table Amendments to them. Why should we be denied the opportunity of tabling Amendments?

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There are issues of principle on which the House of Lords has reversed everything which we were told in Committee underlay the principles of the Bill as the Government saw them. The Government have two courses open to them: either to accept those Lords Amendments or to recommend the House to reject them. Whatever course they take, hon. Members surely should be given the opportunity of considering these Amendments so that they may relate to them other areas which are similarly affected and in relation to which the Government may be giving unequal treatment merely because the Government happen to have been defeated in the other place. If the Government are to overturn their declared principles because of expediency in getting the Bill through, then hon. Members will have to consider the matter very seriously.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes) rose—

Mr. Speaker

I do not think this discussion can go on indefinitely. These are not matters for the Chair. I have no control over Government business. The Government table the business and I have to consider questions of order.

Mr. Oakes

May I put a new point of order, Mr. Speaker? The House is presented with an unprecedented situation since Amendments have been handed to hon. Members on the morning of the day on which the House it to debate the Bill. The practical point is this, Sir. Will you accept both starred Amendments and manuscript Amendments? I handed a number of Amendments to the Table Office this morning which will not appear on the Order Paper, and I know that hon. Gentlemen opposite have a starred Amendment to Lords Amendment No. 429.

The difficulty is further compounded by the selection and grouping of Amendments, which hon. Members could not have known until this afternoon. I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, to take the unusual step in this unprecedented situation of enabling manuscript Amendments to be taken during the course of the debate.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

I realised that this matter might be raised and I did try to help as far as I could by publishing the list of suggested grouping of Amendments. I thought that would be helpful, and I will also bear sympathetically in mind the question of manuscript Amendments.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) asked the Minister to postpone the debate to deal with the question which has arisen. The right hon. Gentleman replied obliquely to that matter and in the circumstances tried to deal with the situation as best he could. I am not complaining about the way in which he replied. However, the Government should recognise that this is an extremely important occasion and should deplore what has happened and take some steps to remedy the situation.

May we have a Government undertaking that the Leader of the House will make a statement? The Bill was sent to the House of Lords in a botched form and there were complaints in the other place about the state in which it arrived there. It has now been returned to this House in a form which is quite unprecedented. The House is invited to embark on three days of debate in a manner which, had not something been said about the situation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford, would not apparently have called for any Government statement. I ask that the Leader of the House should at least come to the House and make a statement, either today or at the latest at the beginning of proceedings tomorrow, offering some apology to the House for what has occurred, and that he will go as far as possible to meet our wishes.

The obligation is on the Government. We raise this matter in this form to make the most strenuous objection against what is being done. If we do not object strongly now this practice will be repeated by some future Government or body in a manner which will deprive the House of its rights.

Mr. Graham Page

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in answer to questions on business last week mentioned the difficulties with which we were faced on this matter. If the House will see how we progress with Amendments today, I give the assurance that I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and will ask him whether he will be good enough tomorrow to inform the House of his intentions. I have sympathy with the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) in raising his point of order, but I think we can make progress and I do not think we shall find the situation as difficult as he thinks. But if we do, my right hon. Friend will come to the House and make a statement.

Mr. John Silkin

Further to that point of order. The Minister is treating the House very well, but it does not meet one important consideration from our point of view. I have no doubt the Minister is right in saying that we shall make a lot of progress, but that may be simply because we have not had time to study these Amendments. That may be regarded as progress in terms of getting the Bill on the Statute Book, but is not progress in terms of giving a proper examination to the Bill. Surely the purpose of the House of Lords is to examine a Bill and to make suggestions to the Commons so that the Commons may think again; it gives an opportunity to the Commons to do that. However, if the Commons has not had a chance to study Amendments, how can we think again?

I suggest that the Leader of the House make a statement to the House tomorrow, because we understand that he may not be able to do that today, and in the meantime that we adjourn at not later than 11 o'clock tonight, if the Minister is agreeable. It means a great deal of hard work during the late hours of the night for my right hon. and hon. Members and myself to get ahead of the Bill. We do not have that good fairy of a civil servant giving us banks of answers to questions that we are sometimes told that the Department has. If the Minister will accept that, I shall feel that he has done the best he can in very difficult circumstances.

Mr. Graham Page

In so far as I am in control of the business of the House, which I should not have thought that I am, I will do all I can not to go beyond 11 o'clock tonight so that we all have a certain amount of time tomorrow to look at the further Amendments.

Lords Amendments considered.

Resolved, That the Lords Amendments to the Local Government Bill be considered by reference to the following order of Clauses and Schedules, namely, Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 8, Schedule 2, Clauses 9 to 18, Schedule 3, Clauses 19 to 20, Schedule 4, Clauses 21 to 37, Schedule 5, Clauses 38 to 45, Schedule 6, Clause 46, Schedule 7, Clauses 47 to 53, Schedule 9, Clause 64, Schedule 10, Clauses 65 to 78, Schedule 11, Clauses 79 to 98, Schedule 12, Clauses 99 to 167, Schedule 13, Clauses 168 to 175, Schedule 14, Clause 176, Schedule 15, Clause 177, Schedule 16, Clauses 178 and 179, Schedule 17, Clause 180, Schedule 18, Clause 181, Schedule 19, Clause 182, Schedule 20, Clause 183, Schedule 21, Clauses 184 to 187, Schedule 22, Clauses 188 and 189, Schedule 23, Clauses 190 to 195, Schedule 24, Clauses 196 and 197, Schedule 25, Clauses 198 to 207, Schedule 26, Clauses 208 to 210, Schedule 27, Clauses 211 to 213, Schedule 28, Clauses 214 to 240, Schedule 29, Clauses 241 to 258, Schedule 30, Clause 259.—[Mr. Graham Page.]

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