HC Deb 27 June 1974 vol 875 cc1726-36
Mr. Heath

Will the Leader of the House please state next week's business?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

The business for next week will be as follows:— MONDAY 1ST JULY—Second Reading of the Social Security Amendment Bill.

Debate on an Opposition motion on pension policy.

Remaining stages of the Pakistan Bill.

Motions on the Synodical Government and the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (Amendment) Measures.

TUESDAY 2ND JULY—Supply [11TH Allotted Day]: Debate on defence on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Proceedings on the Juries Bill [Lords], which is a consolidation measure.

WEDNESDAY 3RD JULY—Supply [12TH Allotted Day]: Debate on an Opposition motion on education, until 7 p.m.

Thereafter, firstly a debate on draft Community Guidelines for Economic Policy etc., and then on Regulations on Regional Policy.

THURSDAY 4TH JULY—Second Reading of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (No. 2) Bill and of the Northern Ireland (Young Persons) Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Solicitors (Amendment) Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 5TH JULY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 8TH JULY—Consideration of Private Members' motions until 7 p.m. Afterwards, Second Reading of the Rent Bill [Lords].

Mr. Heath

It has been widely reported in the Press that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make an important statement announcing further economic measures. Will the right hon. Gentleman say when that statement will be made and what arrangements are being made to debate it?

Secondly, when will statements be made about the Government's decision on the future of Concorde and on the choice of nuclear reactor?

Thirdly, I should like to mention another important matter, which is a constitutional point. I understand that the Government intend to alter the rules governing the political activities of civil ser vants by allowing special advisers of Ministers paid from public funds, to stand as candidates for Parliament or local authorities. This raises considerable constitutional issues.

The Leader of the House is aware that this is a matter on which the Opposition do not hold the same view as the Government. Will he give a firm undertaking that no action will be taken to alter these rules until the House has an opportunity to debate the matter? I believe that this is essential, since this point is of such constitutional importance.

In view of the large number of matters which I have mentioned and which remain to be debated, can he tell the House that certain suggestions that we shall rise early in July are certainly not true and that the House will find it necessary to sit until the end of July?

Mr. Short

The first point raised by the right hon. Gentleman concerned a statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If my right hon. Friend has a statement to make, he will certainly make it before the recess. On Concorde, the Government will be announcing their decision some time in the next few weeks.

On the third question put to me by the right hon. Gentleman regarding special advisers, the Government intend tomorrow to table an amendment to the Servants of the Crown Order to the Privy Council. This is an amendment to the 1960 Order, which is a prerogative order, and no parliamentary action is required. Out of courtesy to the Opposition, I told the right hon. Gentleman about this amendment. I wrote to him some weeks ago, and I wrote to him again today to tell him that we intended to take this action. I thought that I should put the Opposition in the picture on this matter—[Interruption.] I repeat that this is a prerogative order which requires no parliamentary action whatever. I have told the Opposition about it. In any event the order with the amendment will be published in the Gazette. There is no secrecy about this at all—[interruption.] If the Opposition want to hear my answer, perhaps they will listen to what I am saying. We take the view that as these advisers are political, it is ridiculous to try to prevent their having normal political rights.

On the last point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, I have read the reports in the Press about the recess and I am afraid that there is some substance in them.

Mr. Heath

The Leader of the House is right to tell the House that it will be necessary to sit until the end of the month. However, is he aware that he has perpetuated the uncertainty on three major issues. I refer to Concorde, the nuclear reactor and further economic measures. It is not good enough to say that if the Chancellor needs to make a statement, then he will make one. Surely the Leader of the House must by now know the intentions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

To return to the question of the position of political advisers to the Government, the order is not debatable. Moreover, when the order has been laid before the Privy Council, the decision is then taken. This is an important constitutional issue. We are grateful to the Leader of the House for telling us of the Government's intentions, but we express our opposition to the situation. It is only fair that an important constitutional change of this kind—a change which will distinguish between the political activities of different civil servants and will mean that some civil servants cannot indulge in political activities while others can—should be debated in the House before the order is laid. Therefore, I ask the right hon. Gentleman, in his capacity as Lord President of the Council, not to present this order to the Privy Council tomorrow.

Mr. Short

I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman and I shall present the order to the Privy Council tomorrow [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] The right hon. Gentleman asserts that this will be the only group of civil servants to whom this civic right is extended. That is wrong. There are other categories of civil servants who have this right. This

In regard to Concorde and the subject of nuclear reactors, the uncertainty is due simply adds to the list of exceptions and does nothing more than that. to the inactivity on those topics by the Conservative Government. The Labour Government will reach a decision in the next few weeks and come forward with their proposals.

Mr. Heath

I repudiate what the Lord President said about Concorde. That matter and also the subject of nuclear reactors has been reopened by the present Government.

On the question of the Civil Service, if the immunity is to be extended to those right at the top of the Civil Service who hold the highest positions there, then it is essential that these matters should be debated by the House of Commons. The Lord President is behaving in a rather uncharacteristic way by trying to steamroller the House on this important matter. It would make no difference to him to hold up the order so that Parliament could debate it before he presented it to the Privy Council.

Mr. Short

I told the Opposition about this order some weeks ago. I wrote to the Opposition Chief Whip this morning to confirm that we were presenting the order tomorrow. If these people are brought into Government as political advisers, I believe, in common with most other citizens, that they should possess the right to stand as parliamentary candidates. They would have to resign their positions in the Civil Service on nomination day if they were nominated. We believe that they should be able to stand as candidates.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Does my right hon. Friend recall my request to the Prime Minister and his reply on Monday concerning a debate on the British nuclear explosion and the point of order that I subsequently addressed to you, Mr. Speaker, about a debate? Is he aware that Early Day Motion 194, which appeared on the Order Paper only today because of printing difficulties, amongst other things asked for a debate. Further, is my right hon. Friend aware that the motion is now supported by well over 100 of my right hon. and hon. Friends as well as by a number of Opposition hon. Members? Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that we are asking for a debate on this matter not as part of a general defence debate but a debate specifically on the nuclear issue? Will my right hon. Friend say when that debate will take place?

[That this House, taking account of views expressed by hon. Members opposing the series of French nuclear tests, and of the dismay expressed at nuclear explosions by other countries, greatly regrets the explosion of a nuclear device by Great Britain since the Labour Government came into office; and calls for a clear statement of the purposes of this test and whether it represents a further increase of Great Britain's nuclear armoury, in both military capacity and financial costs; asks for total adherence to the Prime Minister's promise that there will be no further such test until the completion of the Defence Review, debate by the House and the opportunity for Members to vote on the issue; and urges the Labour Government to discourage proliferation of nuclear weapons by itself setting an example to the rest of the world.]

Mr. Short

I cannot offer any time beyond the halfday on one day next week.

Mr. Grimond

May I declare an interest? I am a director of the trust which originally financed the political assistants to whom the right hon. Gentleman has referred. I ask him to think again about this matter because there are wide issues about the need for political assistants and their status which the House should consider, quite apart from whether they should stand for Parliament. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to find time for general consideration of this matter.

Further, are we to debate the Scottish economy before we rise? As I trust that a General Election is imminent, may we now debate Kilbrandon?

Mr. Short

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, all I can offer at this stage is that there will be a debate when the Government have some proposals to put before the House. The Opposition Chief Whip put forward an alternative method of financing political advisers. As I told him in my letter this morning, I think that that is a scheme that has certain attractions, and I am happy to consider it and to discuss it with him.

I cannot give any time for a debate on the Scottish economy, but it is fairly certain that we shall have an economic debate before the House rises for the Summer Recess.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that despite the late stage at which the Rent Bill is being introduced, he is planning for it to complete its passage in the House before the end of the month? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the worst thing for furnished tenants would be to promise them security and not to legislate in time before they are all evicted?

Mr. Short

We hope to do this, but we can get the Bill on the statute book before the recess only with the good will and assistance of both sides of the House.

Mr. Kilfedder

Will the right hon. Gentleman provide time for a debate on Northern Ireland so that the House can debate and probe the attitude of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on early elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly? With regard to the Northern Ireland Young Persons Bill [Lords], which is to be debated next week, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that copies of this measure are not available in the Vote Office? Will he make some arrangements for hon. Members to have copies for the weekend so that they can study it and prepare themselves for the debate?

Mr. Short

There will be a number of opportunities to debate Northern Ireland matters before the Recess. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have ample opportunity. I am happy to say that the printing workers are now back to normal working and I hope that the supply of printed matter to the House will right itself quickly.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am in some difficulty today. Over 50 right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak in today's debate. I cannot allow Business Questions to continue for very long.

Mr. Jay

Will my right hon. Friend say what will be the motion before the House for the debate on Wednesday on the EEC's decision on economic policy?

Mr. Short

On this matter we are feeling our way. It will be the first time that we shall have debated a motion from the Scrutiny Committee. On this occasion we are tabling a take-note motion. If my right hon. Friend has other suggestions I shall be pleased to discuss them with him.

Mr. Gow

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House the urgency of the action he proposes to take tomorrow about political advisers? Does he not think that, in his capacity as Leader of the House, he should take into account the widespread anxiety on this subject and provide for a debate before he takes the action which he proposes to take?

Mr. Short

First, I do not equate noise with widespread anxiety. I do not believe that there is widespread anxiety. We have consulted the staff side about this matter. What we are proposing to do tomorrow is to add a tiny category of rather more than 30 people to the list of exempted civil servants.

Mr. Gow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the most unsatisfactory nature of that reply—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot do that during Business Questions. That may apply in other circumstances to prevent further questions, but not questions on the Business Statement.

Mr. Moonman

I recognise that my right hon. Friend is not impressed by noise, but I hope that he will be impressed by a genuine feeling that there may well be some validity in not dealing with the order tomorrow. It would seem that this is not a party issue. The genuine feeling to which I have referred reflects the great concern that is felt by some of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Short

As I say, we have discussed this matter with the staff side. We have informed the Opposition. This is a modest extension of civic rights to a small number of people, and I believe that the order should go ahead.

Mr. Heath

I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the matter. When he says that he is not prepared to listen to noise, all well and good, but he sent the Opposition information because he wanted the Opposition's view and, if possible, their agreement. We found it impossible to give agreement and we expressed our complete opposition to it. The right hon. Gentleman is therefore overriding the views of the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues and the Opposition as a whole. He is now overriding the views that are expressed by some of his hon. Friends. I must again ask him to postpone the order tomorrow and to let the House debate the order first. It is not only that it affects a small group but it affects a group who are at a high level in the Civil Service and in the closest contact with Ministers. This breaks the whole tradition of the Civil Service.

Mr. Short

The right hon. Gentleman is completely ignoring what I said in the second part of my letter. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman has been told about this by his Chief Whip. His hon. Friend came to see me and he put forward an alternative method of dealing with the matter. As I have said, I believe that his alternative had certain attractions and that we would consider it and discuss it with him.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of his hon. Friends do not like place men of either party being put into these positions and that many of his hon. Friends would like to discuss the matter before the Opposition get the chance to raise it in the House? When my right hon. Friend gives the Opposition private information will he try to give similar information to some of his back benchers?

Mr. Short

These are not place men. They are gifted young people who have come to do a job for a Labour Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] These are political advisers. The Conservative Party has 11 of them.

Mr. Burden

May I turn to another subject. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The Leader of the House will be aware that his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has given an undertaking that the House will have an opportunity to debate the O'Brien Report. May we now be told when that debate will take place?

Mr. Short

The hon. Gentleman has asked me often about this. I am afraid that I still cannot give a date. However, I repeat my assurance that there will not be a change of policy until we have debated that report.

Mr. Edelman

Reverting to the exchanges about political advisers, is it not the case that many of them are holders of offices of profit under the Crown? Is it not, therefore, undesirable that the area of patronage should be extended? In that connection, is it not also undesirable that the privileged status of political advisers should spill over into general democratic politics in which they have a special standing which is not provided for by the constitution?

Mr. Short

I take a different view. I believe that all citizens should have full civic rights.

Sir John Hall

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that the feeling of back-bench Members on both sides of the House is very much against him in this matter? As Leader of the House, with a duty to the House, ought he not to take that into account and to withdraw the order until there has been time to debate it?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Short

No, Sir.

Mr. George Cunningham

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there are a number of Government supporters who think that the proposal on political advisers which the Government are putting forward is quite right, but that it is such an important matter that it should be debated before it is decided? Along with others of my hon. Friends, may I ask him to reconsider and to provide time for a discussion of this proposal?

Mr. Short

I have not turned down the possibility of a debate, in the same way as we are giving a debate next week to the Opposition on another motion which does not require parliamentary action. Certainly I am prepared to consider a debate later.

Mr. Heath

That makes the situation even more ridiculous. The Leader of the House is prepared to allow the House to debate it after he has taken the action giving these rights. Why cannot he give us a debate before he attempts to give these rights? All that that requires is a postponement of the laying of the order. Will he say now why the order has to be laid tomorrow? What is the urgency?

Mr. Short

The reason is that we believe that these people are political people. They came in as political advisers, in the same way as the 11 people whom the Leader of the Opposition brought into his Government. We believe that they ought to retain their rights.

Mr. Milne

Will the Leader of the House undertake to arrange an early debate on the Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries dealing with purchasing procedures in the National Coal Board, if not next week certainly before the recess?

Mr. Short

I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on. Mr. Foot—

Mr. Cormack

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am afraid that I have not before me the Standing Orders of the House, but I understand that it is not possible to move a motion calling for a debate under Standing Order No. 9 on a Thursday. If that is correct, we face a very unusual situation. The Leader of the House has made a statement which I suggest affects the very constitution of this place and of the country. An order will be produced tomorrow without Parliament having a chance to debate it—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. At the appropriate moment, he is quite free to move a motion under Standing Order No. 9 on a Thursday. That moment will be after the statement. Mr. Foot.