HC Deb 12 December 1973 vol 866 cc417-20
Dr. David Owen

I beg leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration; namely, the work to rule on the railways, its effect on the energy crisis, the worsening economic situation and the overall state of the nation.

I submit that the matter is specific. The work to rule by 29,000 train drivers could critically interrupt the movement of coal and oil supplies. There is already a 6 per cent. voltage reduction throughout the country. That is the maximum possible reduction before power is cut off. That is the situation on top of the trade figures due to be announced tomorrow morning. Further, there will be another meeting of the National Union of Mine-workers tomorrow morning.

The matter is important. It is commonly accepted that Britain faces the worst crisis it has faced since 1931. The President of the CBI talked of us walking on the edge of a precipice and of the biggest test o£ democracy since 1940. There is not a national newspaper that does not agree that the crisis which we face is important. It is a deep crisis and if it were to be badly handled it could threaten the very fabric of our society.

It is an urgent matter, and while the House fiddles by debating its own car park, whether it should have grass or stone on top of it. the nation burns away its dwindling energy resources and its ability to transport critical supplies. There is an urgent need for leadership and for positive proposals. I believe that they should be made in the House and discussed in the House.

The House of Commons has the right to expect to be the central forum of debate in this country. This matter should take precedence over other business. If the motion is now accepted, Mr. Speaker, under your normal ruling it will be held over for 24 hours to give the House the opportunity to assemble. That means that we would debate it tomorrow. If it were to be moved tomorrow, Thursday, it would be normal for it to be held over until Monday.

The country cannot understand how the House can continue to refuse to debate the seriousness of the situation. I believe that we should debate it on the Adjournment. I suggest that it should not be debated on a party political motion but in the spirit of trying to find concrete solutions to difficult problems.

I do not believe that the country wishes to have a General Election. The country wishes the Government not to run away from their responsibilities——

Mr. Speaker

Order. However appropriate that may be in a debate, it is not appropriate during this application.

Dr. Owen

Mr. Speaker, I hope that when you make your decision you will take into account what the country thinks of Parliament. I hope that in making a decision whether there should be an urgent debate you will take the wider view, away from the usual channels and from the inter-party disputes, and consider the national interest.

Mr. Speaker

Certainly I must try to consider the national interest. I must also try to administer the Standing Orders. Without a doubt, these are important matters and they must be debated. I have to decide whether I should allow an application under Standing Order No. 9 and so provide time for a debate, or whether this is a matter which should be debated for at least one or two full days. I have a suspicion that that is what may happen. Therefore, I must say "No" to the hon Member's application.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have just had an important announcement from the Government regarding the continuation of the state of emergency. It took, including the time taken by hon. Members who were called, less than eight minutes to question the Minister. In view of the gravity of the situation, and as it has been clearly indicated that we shall not have a debate until next Tuesday or Wednesday, surely more time should have been allowed for hon. Members to raise important questions at this stage? The House would then have been fully aware of the circumstances prior to the debate. Further, some hon. Members may have had some concrete suggestions to make to the Government as to how to get out of the situation without a state of emergency.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member has raised a serious point. To decide how long to allow questions to continue on a statement is a matter which perplexes me a great deal. I should be much more disposed to allow questions to continue if they were not made an opportunity for debating points. If they were attempts to seek information, I should be prepared to allow questions to continue. So often when I allow questions to go on they degenerate into a debate. I rather gather that we shall have a debate next week.—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] I have a suspicion and I infer from what has been said that there will be a debate next week. It will be much better to have the debate then and not today.

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

It might be for the convenience of the House if I announce that the Government propose, in co-operation with the Opposition, that there should be a two-day debate on the economy and energy policy next Tuesday and Wednesday. I would have given that information to the House tomorrow, but in view of what you, Mr. Speaker, have said about when the debate might take place, if it took place, it might be for the convenience of the House if I make the position clear now.

Mr. Speaker

When I said that I had a suspicion, that is all that it was.

Mr. Faulds

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we have an assurance from the Leader of the House that any statements which are made on this matter will be made to the House and not in some presidential pavan at Lancaster House?

Mr. Prior

I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Fernyhough

The right hon. Gentleman has said that he can give the House the assurance which my hon. Friend seeks. However, he knows that at midnight tonight many new regulations will come into being. Many people will not know whether they are infringing the law. There should either be adequate advertisements in the newspapers or the Minister should make a further statement so that the people who want to be on the right side of the law are enabled to do so. The people should have the necessary information before the regulations come into effect.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that that is a matter for me. I hope that means will be found to make these matters clear.