HC Deb 06 December 1973 vol 865 cc1456-68
Mr. Edward Short

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. James Prior)

Yes, Sir.

MONDAY, 10TH DECEMBER—Until seven o'clock, Private Members' Motions. Afterwards, motion to approve the Sixth Report from the House of Commons (Services) Committee, Session 1972–73, of the landscaping of New Palace Yard.

TUESDAY, 11TH DECEMBER—Supply (5th Allotted Day) : Debate on the Opposition motion on the reorganisation of the National Health Service. At seven o'clock, the Chairman of Ways and Means has announced opposed private business for consideration. Motions on the Grenada Termination of Association Order, the Highlands and Islands Shipping Services, and on the Grants for Guarantees of Bank Loans (Extension of Period) Order.

WEDNESDAY, 12TH DECEMBER—Supply (6th Allotted Day) : When the Defence Vote on Account and the motion on the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order will be before the House.

Motion relating to the Local Government (Successor Parishes) (No. 2) Order.

THURSDAY, 13TH DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Northern Ireland Constitution (Amendment) Bill, and on Northern Ireland orders.

FRIDAY, 14TH DECEMBER—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY, 17TH DECEMBER—Supply (7th Allotted Day) : The topic for debate to be announced.

The House will wish to know, Mr. Speaker, that, subject to the progress of business, it is intended to propose that the House should rise for the Christmas Adjournment on Friday 21st December.

Mr. Short

In view of the number of alarming stories that we have heard from the local authorities, can the right hon. Gentleman say when the rate support grant will be published and when we shall debate the White Paper on local government finance? Secondly, when will the White Paper on public expenditure be published, and when shall we debate that? Third, will he undertake that we shall have a fuller statement on Monday on the chaotic energy situation and tell us when we are likely to debate that? Fourth, when is the prayer to be debated on the very important order on import duties which will result in widespread price increases in the new year? Finally, he has told us the start of the Christmas Recess. Will he tell us on what day it will end? When shall we come back?

Mr. Prior

To start where the right hon. Gentleman ended, if I were to comply with all the requests for debates which he handed me today we should be coming back on Boxing Day at the latest. I cannot yet give the House a date for the end of the recess. This must depend on a number of important factors which are well known to all hon. Members. I will give the date as soon as I possibly can, but I hope that the House will recognise that at the moment I just cannot give it and am not prepared to hazard a guess. As for the rate support grant, the House will be asked to agree before the end of the year increase orders relating to 1972–73 and 1973–74, and an order in respect of 1974–75 will be brought before the House for approval in the new year. However, before then—possibly in the next two weeks or so—we shall be presenting a White Paper.

I have nothing to add to the date that I gave last week or the week before for the announcement of the public expenditure White Paper. A debate will have to take place shortly after our return.

I recognise that there is keenness in the House to debate the Import Duties (No. 8) Order. I hope that I may be able to take account of that in my next business statement. I have noted what the right hon. Gentleman has said about a further statement on the general energy situation ; I should like to consider that with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. David Price

When shall we have a debate on the oil situation? Is my right hon. Friend aware that energy is indeed one of the uses of oil but that many of us are very concerned about the supplies of naphtha, which is an alternate use of light distillates to petroleum, that the present 90 per cent. of last year's level of supplies is totally inadequate for an expanding industrial economy, and that hydrocarbon molecules coming from crude oil go into practically every industry?

Mr. Prior

I am aware of the point about naphtha and the need for time for a debate on the total oil situation, as opposed to the energy situation. While it may be possible, and may be necessary, for a debate to be arranged on this before the recess, it would have to go wider than the oil situation—although that would certainly be in order in part of it.

Mr. Stonehouse

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is widespread support on both sides for a debate on the oil situation, particularly in view of the statements which have just been made by the international oil companies that oil is being diverted from the United Kingdom, notwithstanding what Ministers say, under some international oil-sharing arrangement? Is he further aware that the House will expect Ministers to make some statement about this matter, particularly in the light of what the Prime Minister assured the House and the country a few weeks ago about oil supplies to the United Kingdom? Is it not vital that the House should have an opportunity to debate all aspects of this matter before we rise for what might be a three-week recess?

Mr. Prior

These matters are very much in my mind and those of the House at the moment. I will certainly consider the views of the House and the necessity for a debate before Christmas, bearing in mind, of course, the limited time available—

Mr. Leadbitter

Surely it could take the place of the landscaping debate on Monday?

Mr. Prior

Let us be sensible about this and discuss it again in the next few days.

Captain Orr

Can my right hon. Friend say something about Thursday's business? He mentioned certain Northern Ireland orders, but can he say what orders he expects to take after the Northern Ireland Constitution (Amendment) Bill? Also, as regards the three orders which are down for tonight's business, can he say whether there will be adequate staff in the House, because they represent a potential four-and-a-half hours?

Mr. Prior

As regards the orders for next Thursday, 13th December, they are the devolution order to transfer powers and functions to the Assembly, the modification order to transfer functions in the law and order and finance fields to appropriate Ministers, etc., in this country, and the order to reorganise Northern Ireland departments. As regards tonight's business, the domestic catering staff of the House will have to close down at 10.45 p.m. in order to get public transport home, and, of course, the Catering Sub-Committee and I regret very much the inconvenience that this may cause to Members. I hope very much that we shall not have too many late-night sittings between now and the Christmas Recess, but I am afraid that we now cannot afford the petrol for the domestic staff to have special transport to get home.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

May I ask the Leader of the House whether it is the intention of the Government to renew the state of emergency, which will need to be done next week, and, if that is done, whether the debate on it will be used as an occasion for the Prime Minister to clear up what is now the glaring confusion, which was in no way cleared up this afternoon, between his reaffirmation of the Government's economic strategy—if that is the right term—in this House yesterday afternoon, and the clear fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer modified that strategy substantially before the National Economic Development Council yesterday? This is a major issue bearing upon the energy crisis. We want a debate on that in the widest sense, in which the position of the Government is made clear on this fundamental issue before we go away for Christmas.

Mr. Prior

The House will have heard what my right hon. Friend said this afternoon, referring in particular to the reports emanating from the National Economic Development Council meeting yesterday, but the fact that he has obviously denied certain of the reports emanating from that Council does not show that there is a difference between the two views. But if the emergency powers have to be renewed, a statement will be made and, indeed, a debate will be necessary. However, this question does not arise today, and I hope that the powers under the Fuel and Electricity (Control) Bill will be sufficient. But if they are not, the Government will, of course, come to the House and make a statement, the emergency powers will be renewed and there will be a debate on them.

Mr. Iremonger

As it looks as if we shall not have any taxis on the streets of London next week unless we can get some satisfactory solution of the taxi-men's problems, will it be possible to fit in a short debate on my Motion No. 93 next week?

[That this House recognises the special problems of owners and drivers of London taxi-cabs, and in particular the problems of owner-drivers, and calls upon Her Majesty's Government not to delay further in determining the new meter rates and to make special provision for fuel to be available to taximen so long as the current shortages persist.]

Mr. Prior

My hon. Friend will have heard the exchanges in the House earlier this afternoon, and I see no reason why there should not be taxis available next week.

Mr. David Watkins

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will find time next week for a debate on Early Day Motion No. 49, which has now been signed by 187 right hon. and hon. Members? Also, may I make the point to him, quite squarely, that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I, who are the principal sponsors of that motion, have no intention of withdrawing it until such time as the subject matter has been resolved by a decision of this House?

[That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the presentation of an humble Address to the Crown praying for the dismissal of Sir John Donaldson, High Court judge and President of the National Industrial Relations Court, by reason of his Court's action in sequestrating £75,000 from the political fund of the engineering section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, which is the fund as laid down by section 3, subsection (3) of the Trade Union Act 1913, and not the fund used for the day-to-day operation of the Union, and thereby ensuring that the punishment was solely inflicted on the Union's political activities, namely, support given to the Labour Party and financial assistance rendered to the constituency parties of the Members of Parliament who are also members of that union for their election campaigns and routine organisation, because, if Sir John Donaldson was not aware of this action, he is guilty of gross negligence and incompetence and if he was aware then it was an act of political prejudice and partiality.]

Mr. Prior

No, Sir, I cannot find time for that debate.

Dame Joan Vickers

In view of the defence debate on Wednesday, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will consider giving a day in the coming Session to discuss the recent report of the Nugent Committee? That will affect a great many individuals, and will affect the constituencies of hon. Members who may not wish to take part in a debate on the defence of the country.

Mr. Prior

Subject to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I should hope that a debate on Nugent would be kept separate from the debate next week, and that we could find time after Christmas for a debate on Nugent on its own.

Mrs. Castle

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen Early Day Motion No. 94 which has gone on the Order Paper today, supported by Members in all parts of the House, calling for an immediate increase in secretarial allowances so that Members can pay their secretaries an adequate salary? Will he make an early statement on this matter?

[That this House, alarmed by the inability of Members to pay out of their own frozen incomes the salary increases to their secretaries which are urgently needed in the light of increases in the cost of living, or to discharge their own responsibilities to their constituents as fully as they would wish, calls on the Government to make immediate adjustments in the secretarial allowances to Members and to consider as a matter of urgency the need to put both the salaries of secretaries and of Members themselves in a fixed relationship with the salaries of appropriate grades in the Civil Service.]

Mr. Prior

I know that there is great interest in the House and some anxiety on this matter, and I said in the debate on the Queen's Speech that I was looking further at it. This is bound to prove a difficult and contentious matter, particularly at a time when the country is facing economic difficulties and when there is, at least, some difficulty over the operation of phase 3 and its acceptability by other sections of the community. I am by no means certain—but I would not want to make a firm judgment on this today—that it would be right at this juncture for the House of Commons to be seen to be increasing its allowances for any sections of the people who serve it.

Mr. Jennings

Will my right hon. Friend consider scrapping the debate on Monday on the landscaping of New Palace Yard, and substituting for it a debate on the rights of the private individual, with specific reference to the type of advice that Ministers would give to private individuals who legitimately drive up to a garage to get petrol and are refused it when they know quite well that others are being supplied? What advice would Ministers give in such a debate?

Mr. Prior

I should not like to give an off-hand answer to that question. But I must just say to the House that we have been waiting to reach a decision on this business of the landscaping of New Palace Yard for a good many weeks. I have wanted on various occasions to put it on either late at night or on a Friday, but I have specifically refrained from doing so because of the interest that has been expressed in this matter. It really is a bit much when, having waited this while and having chosen the time, hon. Members now say that there is no time for it. I think we should get that debate out of the way and see whether we can find further time for debating these other matters.

Mr. James Johnson

May I ask the Leader of the House a question of which I have given him due notice? As the right hon. Member for Lowestoft, he must know, as I do, of the change in the subsidies for the fishing industry. Can he give us at least half a day, if not a whole day, to discuss this matter, because in view of the change we shall lose the day for debating the finances of the industry?

Mr. Prior

Yes. Because of the changed circumstances, resulting from the fact that there are no longer subsidies for the fishing industry, the House does not have a proper occasion each year to examine the state of the industry, and I think that other arrangements will be necessary I must tell the hon Gentleman that we have usually managed to debate the fishing industry fairly late in the Session, and I should not have thought it was a topic which deserved a debate, at the moment, bearing in mind the other demands being made upon us.

Mr. Biffen

I do not want to disparage the importance of the Highlands and Islands shipping services or the Local Government (Successor Parishes) (No. 2) Order, but does my right hon. Friend agree that next week's business is not particularly appropriate to the circumstances when there is widespread and well-founded apprehension about the economic situation? If the National Economic Development Council is to have a special meeting before Christmas, can we arrange to have an economic debate in the House of Commons?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir. I think it will be necessary to have a debate on a number of issues, relating to energy and oil and to the economic situation, within the period between now and the Christmas Recess. My hon. Friend has made a perfectly fair point. But even in times such as my hon. Friend has described—[HON. MEMBERS : "Crisis."]—and in times of an oil crisis such as we have now, the task of the Government and the process of supply and legislation have to go on. It is right that it should go on, but we should also take note and take the necessary action to ensure that the House of Commons can debate these matters.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

May I return to the question raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr)? Tonight there are three orders on the Order Paper, on the question of proscription of people in Northern Ireland, on large sums of money totalling up to £600 million of expenditure in Northern Ireland, and on fundamental reform of local government in Northern Ireland. Those are likely to take four and a half hours, yet from 10.45 p.m. there will be no refreshment available in the Palace of Westminster for the relatively small number who will remain.

An Hon. Member

Send out for fish and chips.

Mr. Rees

In the face of an expenditure of £600 million, is it not possible to tell the Treasury that taxis should be provided for staff serving the handful of people who will be debating matters affecting Northern Ireland tonight?

Mr. Prior

It is not a question of taxis, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It is a question of trying to restrict the use of petrol. [HON. MEMBERS : "Oh."] I take this matter seriously, even if other hon. Members do not. I believe that these are very important matters. There are arrangements by which hon. Members can get hot drinks if they so desire. It is not unreasonable at this time that we should allow our domestic staff to go home at 10.45 p.m.

Mr. Ridley

I thank my right hon. Friend for saying that there will be a debate on the fuel situation and on the economic situation. May I press him to say that they will be separate debates, in relation to the very great importance' which is placed upon the Government's policy as a result of the oil and coal crises and as witnessed by the fall in stock market prices and the fall in confidence and in investment, which make a debate solely on the economic situation urgent and important?

Mr. Prior

I think that it would be quite impossible to separate the one from the other, and that we could have a debate which involves the oil, energy and economic situations.

Dr. Summerskill

As the majority of the country's ambulance services are now involved in some kind of industrial action, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an urgent statement or debate on this extremely serious situation?

Mr. Prior

Subject to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I should have thought that some of the problems the hon. Lady raises could be dealt with on the Opposition motion on Tuesday.

Mr. Evelyn King

A few minutes ago my right hon. Friend kindly promised a debate on the Nugent Committee's report after January. For that I am grateful. May I get this matter clear? May I assume that no decision will be announced by the Government, or at least none affecting Dorset, until the debate takes place?

Mr. Prior

I have made the position on that clear on a previous occasion. My understanding is that the Government wish to have a debate before any decisions are reached, but I should like to check on that and let my hon. Friend know.

Mr. Judd

Has the right hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to study Early Day Motion No. 88 on the Order Paper, now signed by more than 90 right hon. and hon. Members?

[That, in view of the detailed and far reaching negotiations now taking place within EEC circles in Brussels concerning Associate Status, Generalised Preferences, the European Development Fund and other related matters, this House believes that Her Majesty's Government should enter into no agreements about future policy in these spheres until there has been an opportunity fully to debate any proposals within this House.]

In view of the far-reaching implications of the current negotiations in Brussels concerning the relationship between the EEC and the third world, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be an opportunity for a full and probing debate in the House before any irrevocable decisions are taken?

Mr. Prior

My right hon. Friend dealt with this matter in his statement yesterday. The whole question of debates on Community affairs will have to be considered again in the light of the Select Committee's report. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking for which he has asked, that a debate will take place before these decisions are irrevocably reached, but I will look into that point and let him or the House know.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings), as we are having a debate next week on the landscaping of New Palace Yard, and because of the pressing situation and its possible recurrence in the future, before coming to that debate will my right hon. Friend consider providing in the landscaping for some petrol pumps there, so that at least we would be regular customers somewhere?

Mr. Urwin

In view of the excessive heat which has been generated in the last few minutes about the curtailment of certain services and, indeed, the withdrawal of certain important services in the House because of the absolute necessity for staff to be able to leave while public transport is available, may I ask the Leader of the House to consider seriously the re-institution, for a period during the state of emergency, of morning sittings? If they were reinstituted, we could not only get people away earlier in the evening but also conserve valuable heat resources in the building.

Mr. Prior

That question raises a rather controversial matter which I think we ought to consider if the present emergency regarding fuel continues. I should like to consider that point.

Dame Irene Ward

While I thank my right hon. Friend for the help that he is trying to give, may I ask whether we shall get the necessary order on the Kielder Dam before Christmas? We do not want to be short of water as well as of everything else.

Mr. Prior

As my hon. Friend knows, I have been doing my best to help the House to have this order before Christmas. I am not in a position yet to give the House any further information.

Mr. Bidwell

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that this year the Christmas Recess, whenever it starts, must necessarily be exceedingly short, because the crisis is likely to be continuous and there will be a need, one assumes, for the Government to renew the emergency powers, which will necessitate the very early return of the House? A better reason still is that we have no right in these circumstances to absent ourselves from the House for several weeks.

Mr. Prior

I shall welcome the hon. Gentleman's support if we have to curtail the length of the Christmas Recess.

Mr. Spearing

The Lord President mentioned that he was not prepared to give time for a debate on the GSP preference of the EEC before irrevocable decisions are made. Does he not recall that yesterday his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy said that this was a most important matter? Does not the right hon. Gentleman now agree that a debate is essential before these decisions are reached?

Mr. Prior

I did not say that I was not prepared to give time for a debate. I wanted to be certain of the last date by which these decisions had to be reached. Without that knowledge I am not able to give the undertaking, because I know how much time there is between now and, for example, 1st January. Therefore, it would be wrong of me to give the House an undertaking which I might not be able to fulfil. But if there is no decision to be reached as early as that, there may be time for a debate.

Mr. Benn

Reverting to the economic and industrial situation, will the right hon. Gentleman convey to his colleagues the feeling expressed on all sides of the House that it would be quite intolerable if the present situation was being discussed between the Government, the TUC and the CBI, involving a re-examination of alternative strategies for the Government, and this information was not made available to the House, and through the House, to the country, so that people can be brought into the Government's thinking? Will he please convey this feeling very strongly so that the House is able to perform its proper function at a moment which everyone recognises is one of serious danger?

Mr. Prior

I shall take into very careful consideration the views that have been expressed by the right hon. Gentleman and by other hon. Members in all parts of the House. Naturally, it would be the wish of the Leader of the House that the House had a full opportunity for discussing these matters, which I and the Government recognise are of great importance to the country at present. I do not think that we would be able to go away for Christmas without having a debate on these matters.

Mr. Ashton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House has announced the date on which the Christmas Recess will begin, but he did not announce when we would be returning. In view of the fact that the emergency powers expire next Friday and if they are renewed they would be due to expire again on the second Sunday in January, how can the House continue in this limbo situation without there being a proper timetable laid down?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has already dealt with that matter—which is not a point of order—in his reply.