§ Sir Geoffrey Howe (Surrey, East)
I wish to raise a point of order, while the House is still sitting as a House, relating to the Remuneration, Charges and Grants Bill. It is a point of which I have given notice to the Chair and which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may wish to discuss further with Mr. Speaker. My point of order relates to the continued non-publication of the secret powers Bill. I do not want to go over the policy arguments which we went through yesterday and to which we shall no doubt return today, but I submit that the rules of order of this House require publication of that Bill.
I put forward two quite distinct grounds in support of that argument. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will recollect the familiar passage at page 421 of "Erskine May" about the citation of documents not before the House:A Minister of the Crown is not at liberty to read or quote from a despatch or other state paper not before the House, unless he be prepared to lay it upon the table.…The principle is so reasonable that it has not been contested.…It has also been admitted that a document which has been cited ought to be laid upon the table of the House, if it 805 can be done without injury to the public interests.No reasons can be put forward on the ground of public interest against the publication of this Bill. This afternoon the Leader of the House referred to the Bill. I think that he was the fourth or fifth Minister to do so. Therefore the contents of the Bill are in no way secret. The Minister said that its contents had been fully spelt out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. At his Press Conference on 11th July the Prime Minister said in terms—he has not sought to deny it—that the Bill would be published. Therefore, there can be no question about its publication being against the public interest.
In those circumstances the first ground I put forward is that the Bill has by now been cited to the House on many occasions.
On 11th July the Prime Minister set out a large part of the Bill's substance. The Chancellor of the Exchequer on 21st July, the Prime Minister on 22nd July, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer again yesterday, all gave substantial summaries of the contents of that Bill. However, it has gone further than that.
This afternoon the Leader of the House, in describing what took place, said not only that the contents were not secret but that they had been fully spelt out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If that does not amount to the citation of the Bill, it is difficult to see what does. It goes beyond a mere summary of the contents.
The second ground I put forward, which is special to this piece of legislation, begins from the fact that the Remuneration, Charges and Grants Bill says that employers and Ministers must comply with thelimits imposed by the policy set out in the White Paper (Cmnd. 6151)".If we ask what the policy set out in that White Paper is, if the Secretary of State asks himself what the policy is, because he must apply it, or if the courts have to ask what that policy is, we must look at the White Paper. This point goes beyond the passage in "Erskine May" to which I referred. The White Paper on its face contains this proposition: 806Legislation has therefore been prepared which…would make it illegal…to exceed the pay limit. The Government will ask Parliament to approve this legislation forthwith if the pay limit is endangered with resultant unfairness to the great majority of those who are prepared to observe it.Those passages from the White Paper make it plain that the unpublished secret powers Bill is part of the policy of the White Paper. It is part of the policy to which the Secretary of State must have regard. It is part of the policy which is incorporated and referred to, and to which people must pay regard under the Bill which we shall shortly debate.
On both those grounds it seems to me, apart from the political wisdom or unwisdom of the Government's position, as a matter of order of this House of Commons, that that document should now be published and laid on the table of the House.
We are not asking at this stage for the enactment of powers which we have not seen. It would be foolish to ask for the enactment of unseen powers. We are simply asking for the right to see this document which everyone, except the Opposition, is free to cite in the House.
§ The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, any question of this nature will no doubt be submitted by you to Mr. Speaker for consideration, perhaps at the beginning of tomorrow's business. I do not know whether that would be a convenient time at which Mr. Speaker might give his views about the matter. I think that it would be a peculiar arrangement for you to be asked to give a judgment on the matter here and now. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] For reasons which I should like to raise on this point of order, if I may.
The right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) put considerations to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I should like to put one or two considerations on this matter, especially if it were suggested in any quarter that Mr. Speaker's ruling should be given now.
The submission made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman dealt with a different subject. It is a normal process for a Government to give an indication in a White Paper of possible future legislation which they might enact and might 807 wish to initiate. That has been done before in White Papers dealing with one Bill, but where an indication was perhaps given of legislation which might be considered at a later stage. That is normal in our procedure. However, if it is suggested that the publication of a subsequent document must take place as a result of a suggestion made in the White Paper, it seems to me that that is a novel doctrine.
Statements have been made from the Treasury Bench and elsewhere indicating what would be covered in future legislation if it were decided to bring it before the House. That also does not seem to me to raise the question to which "Erskine May" refers and which is covered under the rules of the House. That rule is designed to ensure that there shall not be a debate about one document referring to transactions which have already taken place, or reference to parts of the document, without the document having been presented to the House. That is different from forecasts about legislation which might or might not take place.
Therefore I submit that in my judgment it would be a serious departure from the normal practices of the House if it were ruled that that passage of "Erskine May" applied to the kind of paragraph in the White Paper to which reference was made.
§ Several hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I hope that I shall not have a dozen points of order to deal with at a time, although I am capable of dealing with two at a time only.
§ Sir G. Howe
I fully respond to the point made by the Secretary of State. This may be a point that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may wish to consider with Mr. Speaker. However, I suggest that it would not be appropriate to defer the matter until tomorrow but should if possible be decided during the course of today.
I should like to make two other points—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The right hon. and learned Member and the Secretary of State made points of order at some length. For once, "Erskine May" is clear, straightforward and simple. Page 458 reads: 808A Minister of the Crown is not at liberty to read or quote from a despatch or other state paper not before the House, unless he is prepared to lay it upon the table…A Minister who summarises a correspondence, but does not actually quote from it, is not bound to lay it upon the table (m).It is clear that documents have neither been quoted nor read. Therefore, according to "Erskine May", it is not necessary for it to be laid upon the able.
Secondly, it is not a matter for the Chair whether a Bill is produced. That is a matter between the Opposition and the Government.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
Further to that point of order. I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as far as it went. However, we find ourselves in an unusual position which makes it highly desirable that we should have this matter fully resolved by the Government disclosing their intentions, and to do so before the Committee stage has got very far.
Clause 1 of the Remuneration, Charges and Grants Bill purports to interfere with existing contracts. Clauses 2 and 3 give the Government power to interfere with contracts which we must assume will be made in future. We shall have a duty to scrutinise Clause 1 on the one hand, and Clauses 2 and 3 on the other. We cannot decide or determine what the full effects of those clauses will be unless we are told what sanctions will be available under the clauses giving power to the Government to interfere with the freedom of contract. Therefore, it is vital for a rational discussion of these clauses that we should know exactly what is in the Bill yet to be laid.
§ Several hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, this has been a matter of considerable discussion on which I believe Mr. Speaker has already ruled during the past few days. In any case, it is not a matter for the Chair. The question of the publication of the Bill is a matter for the Government.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In giving your ruling in answer to the point of order raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for 809 Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), when quoting from "Erskine May" you used the word "correspondence". You said that there was no obligation upon a Minister of the Crown to lay upon the Table correspondence from which he quoted. I wonder whether the use of the word "correspondence" in "Erskine May" is relevant to the submission made by my right hon. and learned Friend. There is no question of the Opposition's asking for the publication of correspondence. As the Lord President told the House earlier today that the Bill is not secret, and as paragraph 26 of the White Paper refers to legislation having been prepared, the word "correspondence" which you quoted has no relevance. We are asking not for the publication of correspondence but for the publication of a Bill which the Lord President has said is not secret and which is referred to specifically in the opening words of paragraph 26 of the White Paper.
§ Mr. Peyton
I hope that the Secretary of State for Employment will give further consideration to this point of order and, if he feels it appropriate, make a statement during today's discussions rather than later.