HC Deb 22 April 1975 vol 890 cc1233-40
Q1. Mr. Tebbit

asked the Prime Minister if he is satisfied with the operation of the arrangements announced on 7th April for Ministers who disagree with Government policies to have Questions addressed to them transferred to other Ministers.

Q3. Mr. Peter Morrison

asked the Prime Minister whether he is satisfied with the operation of the arrangement laid down in his Written Answer of 7th April concerning the answering of Questions to Ministers who themselves differ from the Government's recommendation on membership of the EEC.

Q5. Mr. Hurd

asked the Prime Minister whether he is satisfied with the working of the arrangements laid down in his Written Answer of 7th April about the answering of Parliamentary Questions to Ministers who differ from the Government's recommendation on membership of the EEC.

Q6. Mr. Nigel

asked the Prime Minister whether he satisfied with the operation of the arrangements laid down in his Written Answer of 7th April concerning the answering of Parliamentary Questions addressed to Ministers who themselves differ from the Government's recommendation on membership of the EEC.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Tebbit

Has the Prime Minister read the Hansard report of yesterday's questions and answers, involving his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry? In that exchange he will notice that his right hon. Friend resolutely refused to say whether our industrial investment prospects are better for our being in Europe or would be worsened by our leaving Europe. As the Secretary of State would not say anything on that score, will the Prime Minister now say it for him?

The Prime Minister

I read yesterday's Hansard, and I compliment the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) on having forecast yesterday's Hansard two weeks ago, when he tabled this Question.

Mr. Tebbit

It was Inevitable.

The Prime Minister

Having read yesterday's Hansard, I could not feel very convinced that most of the questions put to my right hon. Friend were genuinely seeking information. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and his Conservative colleagues that it is about time they devised a policy, instead of spending all their time putting questions of this kind.

Mr. Peter Morrison

Is the Prime Minister aware that I was one hon. Member who asked the Secretary of State for Industry a supplementary question yesterday? Is he further aware that I was quite unable to get the information which I tried to elicit from the right hon. Gentleman, namely, whether investment would go up or down depending on our withdrawing from or staying in the Common Market? Will he assure his right hon. Friend that at least until referendum day he should keep within the guidelines laid down by the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course, I was aware that the hon. Gentleman was the originator of one of the questions. That rather adds strength to the force of my reply about the quality of the particular question. On the question of investment, and gains to Britain, I have tried, in this House and outside, to suggest to the campaign organisations on both sides not to exaggerate the consequences of being in or out. We all know that the answer to our economic problems lies within this country. The most complete answer to the total absence of Conservative policy is to be found in the speech made last night by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Will the Prime Minister comment on the speech made by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition during the weekend at Stratford, when he implied that the Conservative Party could not be declared as accepting a "No" verdict in the forthcoming referendum? Does the Prime Minister not agree that that is a repetition of the old trick of "Heads I win, tails you lose"? Will he confirm that even the consenting Ministers of the Cabinet will accept the wishes of the British people in this matter?

The Prime Minister

I cannot comment on the speech referred to. There is no ministerial responsibility—and as far as I can see there is no Opposition responsibility, either—for the various speeches of disassociation by members of the previous Conservative Government, which are made by the present Opposition Front Bench speakers, such as they are. My hon. Friend has made a significant point.

These questions, otiose, tedious and diversionary as they are, might add force if the result was that the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition, whom I now see leaning forward, were to say that she will accept the verdict of the British people on the referendum.

Mrs. Thatcher

Will the Prime Minister clarify the position—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady is asking the Prime Minister a question. She must be heard in silence.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that I should accept the constitutional position with regard to Members of Parliament, whether or not they were tied by the referendum vote, the constitutional position being that they cannot be fettered by the result of the referendum, as the Prime Minister said on 23rd January in c. 1751? Will he clarify the position of the Labour Party? Is the Prime Minister saying that whatever the turnout in the referendum, whatever the vote, whatever the majority however small, every member of the Labour Party will be expected to vote in accordance with the result?

The Prime Minister

I repeat what I said during two General Elections, a precedent which the right hon. Lady may care to consider following. I said that we would accept the majority verdict of the British people in that respect. The Government will certainly accept it. I have said that we shall do that. However, the right hon. Lady has not answered the question whether she will accept the verdict of the British people.

I thought that the right hon. Lady complained about fetters—or something of that kind—on Members of Parliament. She was fettered by a promise that Britain would not go into the EEC without the full-hearted consent of the British people. Will she say what she did with her fetters on that occasion?

Mrs. Thatcher

Bearing in mind that the Prime Minister is paid to answer questions and not to ask them, and that clearly on that criterion he does not earn his keep, will he now say whether the answer to my question is "Yes" or "No"?

The Prime Minister

I shall answer that question. First, I deplore the personal attack contained in the opening remarks of the Leader of the Opposition about the relationship between the salaries of Prime Ministers and productivity, because what she said was a terrible attack on the previous Prime Minister, since all his answers were in the form of questions to me. I do that occasionally.

The answer to the question is "Yes". We shall accept the verdict of the British people by a majority verdict in the referendum.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does the Prime Minister accept that everyone in the House would agree with the concept of the full-hearted consent of the British people, whatever that might mean? If there were a 40 per cent. poll, with 21 per cent. of the voters voting one way and 19 per cent. the other, would my right hon. Friend be assured that neither he nor anyone else would bind me as to how I vote?

The Prime Minister

I have never regarded my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) as a particularly bindable person to anything. I find this very interesting. My hon. Friend will be gratified by the Opposition cheers at what he has said. I do not recall that he received such cheers when he spoke on the Civil List, for example. However, we find odd alliances across the Floor of the House.

This is a hypothetical question. However, if my hon. Friend, who, I gather, is actively campaigning in these matters, has so little faith in his persuasive powers as to expect such a low poll, he will have to form his own judgment about the result.

I said that we should accept the verdict of the British people. If a considerable number decide that they do not want to vote, we shall just have to take account of those who do want to vote.

Mr. Hurd

When the Prime Minister was first elected to the House, did not he feel, as did some of us, that he was sent here to exercise his judgment in the best interests of the nation? Will he please cease reading us lectures on arrogance and allow us to exercise our own judgment?

The Prime Minister

I always listen with great care to what the hon. Gentleman says about these questions. However, this is a unique occasion of a vote by the British people. This is its exercise of sovereignty. After the campaign in 1970, during which the hon. Gentleman campaigned, those pledges were broken, because the people were not consulted.

As regards the hon. Gentleman's remarks about exercising the rights of a Member of Parliament, nothing could be more blatant than the whipping of Conservative Government supporters at every stage of the European Communities Bill, from which not one Minister was allowed to dissociate himself.

Mr. Hooley

The European Parliament has now asserted its control over the Regional Development Fund. However much Cabinet responsibilities may be shuffled around in the present peculiar fashion, does not the Prime Minister agree that important powers will slip away irrevocably from the House if we remain in the Common Market?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, I do not accept that interpretation. This is a difficult question about the distinction between compulsory expenditure for the Assembly and non-compulsory expenditure. What it has now is, within the limitation set by the increase in the gross product of the Community, the right to propose additional grants for regional aid within the total of the regional fund.

That matter will be looked at again. However, I believe that it does not derogate from the power of this Parliament. If the Assembly decided, it could increase the regional fund. During the past few weeks we have received substantial aid from the regional fund pledged to this country. We have retained our full control over national aid as regards the Regional Development Fund. At the summit meeting the Heads of Government accepted that, as regards regional matters, what any national Government decide is in the interests of that country is to be regarded as the right answer in these matters.

Mr. Thorpe

Reverting to the referendum and recalling the Prime Minister's arguments against a referendum up to 1972, does he accept that there are still some right hon. and hon. Members in this House who believe that the promises that they made to the electorate at the last election are still binding? If he wishes to underline the sovereignty of Parliament by suggesting that those promises can now be broken, the right hon. Gentleman will not take the whole House along with him.

May I congratulate the Prime Minister on the successful way in which the transfer of Questions to Ministers is working? Is it not a fact that it has not been found necessary to have Questions transferred? Dr. Johnson said that conversation was given to conceal our thoughts. For anti-Market Ministers, Questions are given to conceal their thoughts.

The Prime Minister

I think that the expert on Dr. Johnson, the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), is standing in the back row of the Opposition benches now.

Regarding the election pledges of the Liberal Party, there is a more substantial figure on the Liberal bench than the right hon. Gentleman can ever hope to be—a Member who was elected in a by-election on a promise to support a referendum on the Common Market. Towards the end of the election, when I think that he was getting a little desperate—he proved that he was right to be so—I heard the right hon. Gentleman say that if the Labour Party were elected on the manifesto he would support it in a referendum.

Mr. Lipton

Despite the tender solicitude shown by Opposition Members for the unity of the present administration, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that they are equally unhappy whether the Labour Government are divided or not?

The Prime Minister

That is probably true—indeed, it is certainly true. I am touched by the solicitude of Opposition Members, as my hon. Friend fairly described it. I think that it is the only escape that they have, because they have no policy on any subject, as became clear in the debate on the Budget, for four days. One day the right hon. Lady, who does not like answering questions, from wherever they may come, will tell us whether she supports the speech made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) yesterday. The Opposition have also talked about cutting expenditure. One day the right hon. Lady will tell us a single item which she will cut—and it will not be defence.

Mr. Lawson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the purpose of Prime Minister' Questions is to ask questions about Government policy, not about Opposition policy, and to receive answers on them? In the light of the difficulties into which the Secretary of State for Industry got at Question Time yesterday, and in view of the Prime Minister's unique ability to face both sides of every issue, would it not be better if all Questions to dissenting Ministers were in future transferred to him?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman took so long getting into this House, as we know from successive elections, despite the disreputable character of his campaign in Slough—[Hon. Members: "Withdraw."]—I am delighted that so many Tories are backing that campaign—that, unfortunately, we missed his company from 1970 to 1974, when every question put to the then Prime Minister by the syndicate which I think he has now joined as a kind of consenting Member asked the Prime Minister to put a question to me. I do it occasionally, because I am not getting any lead from the Opposition. It is very bad for democracy. That is why I am trying to help them.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way of over- coming the Opposition's difficulty in interpreting the meaning of his Written Answer on 7th April would be to speed the passage of the Referendum Bill, which would enable the whole House to accept the traditional democratic British practice of accepting a simple majority verdict of the British people on all questions?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I understand from what I read in the Conservative Press, which on these matters, at any rate, must be believed, that the occupants the Conservative Front Bench—I am sure that their lead will be followed—intend, whatever they may think about the Referendum Bill, on which the House has taken a decision, to facilitate the passage of the Committee and Report stages while pressing, as they have every right to do, particular issues on which they believe the Bill should be amended.