HC Deb 28 May 1976 vol 912 cc774-84
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

The business for the first week after the Adjournment will be as follows:

MONDAY 7th June—Completion of the remaining stages of the Police Bill.

Remaining stages of the Education (Scotland) Bill [Lords].

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill and to the Freshwater and Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Bill.

Motion on the Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order.

TUESDAY 8th June and WEDNESDAY 9th June—Progress on the remaining stages of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill.

THURSDAY 10th June—Remaining stages of the Education Bill.

FRIDAY 11th June—Remaining stages of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Motions on the Northern Ireland Orders on Animals and Births and Deaths Registration.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Leader of the House aware that until the underlying question is resolved, it would be best if I asked him no questions on the Business Statement because clearly some of the business itself will be in issue?

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the whole question of the pairing system, as there have been a few occasions during the time that I have been a Member of this House when it has been brought into question? That is possibly one of the major reasons why Members of Parliament are regarded outside with some cynicism, especially when hon. Gentlemen opposite comment on the absence from work of industrial workers on occasions and when we have attendances by possibly only a third of Members turning up for work. As there is a desire by some of us to get rid of this cynicism and to remove the disrepute, may we have a debate to ensure that as often as possible Members turn up for work? In view of that, would it be sensible to do what I do and not get involved in the pairing system at all?

Mr. Foot

I do not believe that the pairing system is best discussed in the House of Commons itself. I think that it has been the general view of the House over many years, if not a few centuries, that it is best discussed through the usual channels and within individual parties. I believe that the pairing system can make a considerable contribution to the proper and convenient functioning of this House and that it would be injurious to our proceedings if it were undermined. Therefore, I cannot respond to my hon. Friend by suggesting that a debate in the House is the best way of dealing with the matter.

Sir David Renton

Would it not be better on Tuesday or Wednesday after we return to have a debate, which incidentally might help the House to cool itself a bit, on the reorganisation of the water industry, which has been proposed in a Green Paper which recommends even more Government control and ownership?

Mr. Foot

I dare say that that is a very good subject for discussion at some time, but I cannot suggest that we should abandon the proposals that we have made for discussion the week after next. We want to get the legislation through this House and into another place so that the other place may have proper time to discuss it. I believe that the general view of the House is that we should proceed in that way. I think that the Government have a right to propose that we should continue to discuss that legislation.

Mr. Lipton

Will my right hon. Friend consider referring to the Select Committee on Procedure more modern methods of exercising the vote in this House? Part of the trouble last night was that about 500 or 600 Members tried to get out at the same time. They were pushing and jostling each other, and that led to the unfortunate events which took place. It should be possible—perhaps the Select Committee on Procedure will consider the matter—to have some electronic method of recording votes so that we do not all pile into the House at the same time without knowing before hand exactly how the voting is going.

Mr. Foot

My recollection is that the Procedure Committee has on a number of occasions looked at the possibility of using other devices for recording the method of voting but it has always, or usually, come down against it because it has found that the system that we operate, curiously enough, has some fundamental advantages. I think that that will still be found to be the case. It is possible, as has been shown on innumerable occasions, to conduct Divisions without any of the difficulties that we had last night.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Patronage Secretary, who is a Treasury Minister, to make a statement to the House on the affair of the pairing or non-pairing last night on the precedent of the discussions in the House that followed the occasion when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was recorded as having voted when in fact he had not done so? At the conclusion of that exchange, Mr. Speaker ordered that the Journal of the House be corrected. Therefore, there is a precedent for proper discussion on the Floor of the House of the events that led to the actual vote. It is a matter of great public concern—and the reputation of this House will be permanently damaged unless that concern is allayed—to know what events preceded the second vote last night. I put it to the Leader of the House that Mr. Speaker's predecessor thought it right that the matter should be ventilated then and there on the Floor of the House with a statement by the Ministers who were intimately concerned.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. That precedent should not be followed. Am I not right in my belief that there used to be a convention of the House that Whips never spoke—a convention which, as far as I know, has never been broken by the Opposition? I suggest that it is wiser to revert to that convention.

Mr. Foot

For the reasons indicated in previous exchanges, I do not believe that the best way to deal with the situation is by a general discussion in the House. I did not say that there had never been discussions on these matters in the House. I said that I thought it preferable that the matter should be discussed through the usual channels. Of course if the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition wishes to raise these matters with the Prime Minister, it is certainly open to her to do so. But I must underline that the Government's view is that the votes last night were valid votes.

Mr. William Hamilton

In view of recent odious events, will my right hon. Friend provide an early opportunity for a debate on the honours system, particularly with reference to an Early-Day Motion on this matter? That would give my right hon. and hon. Friends an opportunity to repudiate entirely an attempt to associate the Labour Party with that matter.

[That this House is appalled by the manner in which the Honours system has continuously been used by Sir Harold Wilson in a way which has offended the Labour movement in particular; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to abolish the Honours system forthwith.]

Mr. Foot

I cannot offer any early time to discuss that matter, because we have essential business to get through.

Mr. Cormack

Bearing in mind how important it is that the Leader of the House should enjoy the confidence of the House, will he reconsider his position and make a statement when we come back after the recess?

Mr. Foot

I do not know on which particular aspect of the matter the hon. Gentleman is asking for a statement from me. If he wishes me to make a statement on any particular matter, I will take it into account. However, he has not indicated anything in his intervention.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Will my right hon. Friend take on board the possibility of improving the medical facilties in this House? Will he confer with the usual channels to ensure that Members who are sick are not brought here at peril to their lives because they are refused pairs? I make the accusation that our procedure and system have been directly responsible for the death of more than one Member.

Mr. Foot

I fully appreciate what my hon. Friend says. This is a further indication why it is undesirable that we should discuss the pairing system in the House, particularly in this atmosphere. It is much better that we should try to see whether there is not a better way of dealing with those who are ill. There has been a suggestion made in this connection by some of my hon. Friends and some Opposition Members. If there can be fresh discussions on this subject, through the usual channels, we shall be in favour of it.

Mr. Henderson

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that one of the many subjects on which he spoke this week was that of devolution? Does he realise that there was a great desire in many parts of the House fully to explore what the Government were saying and to look at the more interesting and useful alternatives which my hon. Friends and I put forward? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us that he is arranging time for a debate on the subject?

Mr. Foot

I cannot give any absolute promise about a debate. It seems, some time ago, that I made a further statement on devolution—one which I am glad to see has been well received in Scotland, as well as elsewhere. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wishes to join in the acclamation for that statement. Although I am eager to give him the opportunity as soon as possible, I cannot yet fix any date.

Mr. Buchan

Following the question by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson), may I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the possibility of discussing the question of devolution with the trade union movement in Scotland? Is he aware that yesterday, when the Scottish Trades Union Congress and many trade union organisations sent telegrams to the Scottish National Party, these telegrams were described as bogus and one of them was torn up and scattered across the Floor of the House? In view of that, would it not be useful to express a view on the status of the trade union movement in Scotland and on the contemptuous attitude shown towards it by the SNP?

Mr. Foot

I witnessed scenes when some telegrams were torn up. Those telegrams came from people who were desperately concerned about their jobs. It is highly deplorable that their representations were not better received in the House of Commons as a whole.

Mr. Flannery

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for a Member of the Scottish National Party to shout across the House saying that these telegrams are a Communist plot, when they came from working people in Scotland?

Mr. Speaker

I did not hear any such statement.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

May I thank the Leader of the House for honouring the promise given by his predecessor to set up the Sessional Committee on Procedure? Will the right lion. Gentleman consider allowing it to begin work, when we return, on at least three of the subjects which it has been suggested might be referred to it?

Mr. Foot

I will certainly see what can be done to provide the Committee with the subjects that have been suggested for its consideration at an early stage, if not in the week when we return. I should also say that it is highly regrettable that the terms of reference and the membership of the other Procedure Committee have not yet been placed on the Order Paper. We are eager for that to be done speedily. I hope that we shall be given assistance in enabling that to happen.

Mr. James Johnson

When are we to have a debate on the Floor of the House and a Government statement about the Icelandic fisheries dispute? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Hull there is indignation and disgust about the official leaks coming from Reykjavik and the unofficial leaks from Whitehall about the terms of the settlement, which suggests that there will be 25 vessels fishing in waters designated by the Icelanders? Does my right hon Friend appreciate that under those circumstances the industry would not guarantee a 25,000-ton catch? Is he further aware that for every vessel in Hull that is taken out of commission and put into the scrap yard there are 25 men on deck and 100 men on shore who will be made unemployed? When are we to have a statement? Does my right hon. Friend realise that unless we have one soon my constituents and those in other fishing ports will think that this is a sellout—and I shall be bound to agree?

Mr. Foot

I fully recognise the great interest which my hon. Friend takes in this subject. He has approached me during the week on the issue. Today is not the only time that lie has raised the matter. I am afraid that I cannot give him any answer beyond saying that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is in charge of negotiations, will, I am sure, report to the House as soon as he advantageously and possibly can.

Mr. Mayhew

May we have an early debate on the question whether we, like most other democratic countries, should have a Bill of Rights so that, among other things, a supreme court might rule whether legislation is constitutional?

Mr. Foot

I know that there is an argument for such a Bill of Rights and a written constitution. There are, however strong arguments against it because some of these so-called entrenched provisions have often been used in some of the countries to which the hon. and learned Gentleman refers to block all forms of progress—[Laughterl] It is no good hon. Gentlemen laughing. They should read the history of the United States Court. This subject raises very much larger constitutional questions and I certainly cannot promise an early debate on it in the near future.

Mr. Spearing

Does my right hon. Friend recall that a few weeks ago the Department of the Environment produced an important two-volume discussion paper on transport? Is he aware that there is considerable concern throughout the country on this matter? If we cannot have a debate on the subject in the week when we return, will my right hon. Friend guarantee that we shall have a discussion on it before the Summer Recess?

Mr. Foot

I cannot tell my hon. Friend when we shall have a debate on the subject. Certainly it is a matter of paramount importance and, of course, it will have to be debated fully in the House at some stage.

Mr. Emery

Will the right hon. Gentleman take into account, when considering business for the week after next, that if the discussions between my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister do not reach an acceptable conclusion there will be a large number of Conservative Members who will be urging that a motion of censure be placed on the Order Paper?

Mr. Foot

We shall have to see what happens. If other proposals are made by the Opposition for discussion in the House they will have to be taken into account according to the normal process.

Mr. Fitt

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order which we are to debate on 7th June? Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is of major importance and will have a great impact on the whole industrial relations atmosphere in Northern Ireland? Does he realise that there are 79 articles in the Order and that the debate is to be limited to 90 minutes? Does he appreciate that there are many Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies who will wish to put forward a point of view on such a vital issue? May I ask my right hon. Friend to extend the debate beyond 90 minutes, which is totally inadequate for such an issue?

Mr. Foot

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern about the time allowed for this debate. He has been making representations to me constantly on this subject. We wish to provide more time to discuss these important subjects. I promise that I will look in particular at the debate scheduled for Monday week to see whether we can lengthen the time available.

Mr. Aitken

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the Police Bill which is at present scheduled to be discussed on the first day we return after the recess? Is he aware that, in a spirit of mutual trust, certain understandings were entered into as to the speed at which progress might be possible on this measure? Is he further aware that those understandings must be regarded as being in abeyance until that vital spirit of mutual trust has been re-established?

Mr. Foot

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman intends to mean by that. I hope that any understandings reached about the Police Bill and other Bills will be adhered to.

Mr. Heffer

Since my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is likely to make a statement before the Summer Recess on the sugar industry, which could effect Merseyside, Glasgow and London in particular and which might—I trust not—involve redundancies, may I ask for a clear indication that, following that statement, there will be a debate in the House on the whole question of the sugar industry, both cane and beet?

Mr. Foot

It is difficult to give an absolute promise of time for a debate because, as I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates, we have a full timetable in the period before the Summer Recess, and there has been some setback to that timetable. As my hon. Friend appreciates, some of that legislation is of the highest importance and we have to get it through, but I take account of his representations. I know that several of my hon. Friends from different parts of the country have been raising this matter, and I realise that following the statement, there may be pressure for a debate. I shall consider that.

Mr. Freud

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider setting up a Select Committee to consider the publication of a parliamentary song book?

Mr. Crouch

I thank the Leader of the House for having kept his promise by seeing that a statement was made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Social Services on the existing state of knowledge about rabies. May I ask whether we may have a statement or an early debate, if only a short one, on the need to emphasise—which was made clear in the statement—that this illness almost inevitably is fatal and that preventing its coming to our shores is becoming increasingly important?

Mr. Foot

I do not underrate the importance of what the hon. Gentleman puts to the Government on this subject. I indicated that also on Tuesday when we had an Adjournment debate in the House in response to several hon. Members who raised the matter. I responded to it then, and no doubt when the House returns there will be pressure for a statement on the subject. I cannot say more than that now.

Mr. Stokes

Reverting to the business for the week after next, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, instead of discussing on Tuesday and Wednesday the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, the House could discuss a matter that is of far greater importance and interest to the vast mass of people in this country, namely, a stricter control of immigration?

Mr. Foot

There was a discussion on that matter in the House earlier this week, and there was some reference to it during the Adjournment debate. I emphasise again that the proposals that we have announced for debates in the week after next are concerned with what we consider to be urgent Government business which we need to get through to try to ensure that we can do our best to sustain two great British industries. We need this measure to go through this House and the other place according to the procedures available. We need it to go through to be able to do its job. I know that there may be some differences of opinion in the House, but the House of Commons has accepted the full principle of the Bill and I believe that we have every justification for proceeding with it.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Hugh Fraser

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely the most urgent national business is for the Government to go and for there to be an immediate General Election.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman ought to know better than to raise a bogus point of order.