HC Deb 17 November 1976 vol 919 cc1387-463


Lords amendments considered.

6.7 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave you notice some time ago that I would seek to raise a point of order at this stage of the proceedings on the Bill relating to your selection, which was not placed or made available in the " No " Lobby until some time between a quarter to and a quarter past three this afternoon.

I put it to you that, so to speak, by the grace of God, we have had longer to consider your selection than would normally have been the case if other proceedings had not interrupted the com-

That the Lords Amendments to the Rent (Agriculture) Bill be considered by reference to the following order of Clauses and Schedules, namely, Clause 1, Schedule 2, Clauses 2 to 8, Schedule 3, Clauses 9 to 11, Schedule 4, Clauses 12 to 16, Schedule 5, Clauses 17 to 32, Schedule 6, Clauses 33 to 35, Schedule 7, Clauses 36 and 37, Schedule 1, new Schedules, Clauses 38 to 43, Schedules 8 and 9.—[Mr. Armstrong.]
Mr. Francis Pym (Cambridgeshire)

The House is very well aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends are thoroughly dissatisfied with the manner in which the Bill has been handled in every conceivable way. In due course, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall wish to move a manuscript amendment to the motion. However, at the outset I wish to say that we are extremely unhappy about the way in which we are being treated on the Bill. We do not think that we have been given adequate notice or that proper parliamentary time intervals and procedures have in any way been adhered to.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has just mentioned the difficulties over the list of amendments selected. However, you will notice yourself, Mr. Speaker, that all the Government amendments on the Amendment Paper are starred, indicating the fact, of which we are all aware, that until last night no one in the House knew that this business was to come before the House today.

We have felt all along that the guillotine originally proposed on Report and carried by the House was completely mencement of the Bill this afternoon. If we had not had the prolonged debate on the privilege motion, which has put back the time of commencement of these proceedings, those of us who are interested in these amendments would have had only about half an hour to absorb your selection. With respect, that is not fair to Members of Parliament on both sides. There are no fewer than 137 different amendments in 49 groupings. It is not adequate for hon. Members to have only about half a hour to consider how these debates should take place.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has a legitimate complaint, and I apologise to him and to the House. I was in some difficulty. I do not want to go into it in too great detail. I appreciate that the notices should have been posted earlier. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the inconvenience he has suffered.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

unjustified. There had been no delay of any kind in Committee. The Opposition had been fulfilling their role with reasonableness and fair play, and there was proper progress. The thanks we got for that was the knife brought down by the Leader of the House. There was no parliamentary case whatever for a guillotine at that stage.

The Bill is inimical to agriculture. The only possible gain from the Bill is Socialism. That is something that we are against, and it is quite wrong to guillotine that. Under that guillotine there was no discussion whatsoever of Clause 30. The manuscript amendment relates to advancing Clause 30 to an earlier stage in the Bill. Since the guillotine on Report we have seen another guillotine introduced in a way that can only be described as thoroughly hostile to another place, because the knives were brought down before another place could even conclude its consideration of the amendments, so that we had no idea what decisions their Lordships would come to. Only last night did we hear that their amendments would be taken today.

When my hon. Friends sought to obtain details of the Government's reaction to their Lordships' amendments, they were unable to find that out until five minutes to one o'clock this morning. The list of amendments that their Lordships passed comprised nearly 100 Government amendments and 32 other amendments—more than three times as many Government amendments. When one hears something of the things said by the Government Front Bench about the way their Lordships have handled the Bill, it is right to draw to the attention of this House the fact that in Committee in another place there were 40 Government amendments and only 18 Opposition amendments, and that on Report in another place there were no fewer than 60 further Government amendments and only 21 Opposition amendments.

In the event, however, there are five really significant and important changes that another place has introduced into the Bill. The first is an amendment to Clause 1 relating to the definition of agriculture and, in particular, livestock. The second is on the forestry side. The third concerns the responsibility of local authorities to rehouse those who previously lived in tied cottages; that is what is known as the "best endeavours" clause. The fourth concerns the qualifying period; that is, the length of time a worker must have been involved in agriculture and in a particular farm before he can qualify for the privileges afforded to certain persons under the Bill. The fifth concerns the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of a man for misconduct.

What was the Government's attitude to their Lordships' decisions? We did not know yesterday. We did not know until today. All the amendments that the Government have tabled for us to consider this afternoon are starred. I think that that is a parliamentary disgrace. It bears no relation to any kind of reasonable procedure that anyone has ever known. In view of the fact that we treated the Bill, although we were against it, in the way in which we did, it absolutely offends us that we should receive the treatment that we are receiving.

6.15 p.m.

I do not believe that the Leader of the House is remotely interested in what we understand as parliamentary government. He wants simply to railroad Socialism through this machine. In view of all the things he used to say when he sat below the Gangway, it is a fantastic disgrace that he has the presumption to bring this matter before the House today. I am sorry that he is not in his place. He ought to be in his place. We know that he has had another problem to deal with today, but to try to treat the House in this way is a complete disgrace.

For example, the Government have an amendment of their own to Lords Amendment No. 86. The Government amendment appears to be helpful, but, as it was only in the small hours of this morning that we had notice of it, how in all fairness can we take the legal and proper advice from people who are skilled, informed and expert in these matters in order to know whether it is really helpful? That is one obvious example. Another example, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) feels particularly strongly, is a Government amendment to Lords Amendment No. 77, which appears on the last page of the Amendment Paper. It is a very technical amendment. It deals with a point concerning the Rent Acts not entirely directed to agriculture, apparently. My hon. Friend would have liked much more than a few hours to study the significance of the amendment.

That brings us to Clause 30, the " best endeavours " clause. This was never reached on Report because of the knives. It will not be reached today if the motion is carried. It was not reached on Report and it will not be reached now. I thought that the House of Commons was all about airing grievances. What we are now involved in is an exercise which can be described as a hush-up, and my right hon. and hon. Friends and I resent it.

Therefore, Mr. Speaker, with your permission, I beg to move, as a manuscript amendment to the motion, in line 2, after 'Schedule 2', insert 'Clause 30'.

There are two other manuscript amendments which are consequential. They are: in line 3, at the end, insert ' to 29 ': in line 4, at the beginning, delete first' to ' and insert 'Clauses 31 and'.

The net effect of the amendment to the motion would be that after considering Clause 1 and Schedule 2 we would then consider Clause 30, which is not the only really important clause in the Bill but is certainly one of the important clauses. It would be quite wrong if we went through this business today without giving time to consider that clause. Therefore, we move those amendments not because we think that they make a slight adjustment to something of which we approve but as an absolute protest at the way in which we have been treated.

Mr. Speaker

I have not given permission yet, but I am about to do so. I am about to accept the manuscript amendment. The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) will understand that I accept the manuscript amendment, in line 2, after ' Schedule 2 ', insert ' Clause 30', with which we may discuss the other manuscript amendments, but he will appreciate that at this stage he moves only one amendment.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) has taken the opportunity of this discussion on a procedural matter to attack the Bill as a Socialist measure. We plead guilty to that charge. This is a Bill that will bring social justice to the agricultural community. It will give farm workers and their families a security of tenure and a protection against eviction which is long overdue. Therefore, we are in no doubt that this is a very basic and radical reform, and one of which the present Government are proud.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to attack my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I rebut—[HON. MEMBER: "Where is he? "] My right hon. Friend has had a great many demands put on his time, coming very shortly after an illness and caused to a large extent by the confrontation that has taken place between the Conservative-dominated second Chamber and the House of Commons. That is what today's proceedings are all about.

Hon. Members


Mr. Pym

It is about the mishandling of legislative business by the Leader of the House. That is what it is about.

Mr. Strang

I shall come to that point very soon. I do not want to take up valuable time. We have a full six hours on this measure, and I for one should like to see the time used constructively. Hon. Members must be aware that hours and hours have been spent in debating this measure in Committee and in the other place, and now, as a result of their Lordships' amendments, we are to spend another six hours. I acknowledge that it is an important measure, but it has been debated at great length.

I come now to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire. I think he can reasonably argue that he and his hon. Friends have been subjected to an element of inconvenience as a result of the Government deciding to bring forward these proceedings by one day. That is the complaint, as I understand it—that the right hon. Gentleman expected this debate to take place tomorrow but it is taking place today. I am glad that he acknowledges that.

Let me make our position clear. We recognise that there is an element of genuine inconvenience here, but I think that all hon. Members have been aware that we are not in a position to predict precisely what will be the business in the Commons at present—[An HON. MEMBER: " For how long? "] I think that that is a fair question. For how long depends, among other things, on the attitude of the leadership of the Conservative Opposition and the other place. For how long shall we carry on this Session? I do not know the answer to that.

Mr. Pym

That is a monstrous thing to say. The Government sent a whole host of major Bills to another place very late in the Session, creating a log-jam the like of which has never been known before, and to say that the responsibility for that lies with another place is quite wrong. It is the responsibility of the Leader of the House and the Government's business managers for arranging their legislative programme in this way. The Treasury Bench must take its responsibility.

Mr. Strang

I shall proceed to demonstrate, when we come to debate it, that the first amendment is a wrecking amendment. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. That is what this is about. It is about an attempt by their Lordships to frustrate the Government's intentions here. They have sought to wreck this measure, and the Government, quite rightly, are using their majority and the votes which they can command in the House of Commons to redress the damage. That is what this is about.

I come now to the right hon. Gentleman's proposal, because we genuinely want to have a debate. There is no question of that. The Government want to use the six hours to debate the issues of substance and importance—debating them, I may add, in some cases for the third and fourth time, since that is what it will amount to. These points which have been raised by the other place are not new great points of substance. They are wrecking amendments in some cases, and in some instances they are straight decisions going against decisions reached in the Standing Committee.

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman—this is genuinely meant to be helpful to him—that we are not prepared to accept his manuscript amendment but we are prepared to facilitate his objectives. We are anxious to move on, and I noted his particular reference to Clause 30. We are anxious to conduct our affairs in a way that will enable us to move on quickly and avoid any undue delay on some of the matters arising earlier, certain of which, I agree, are important.

Therefore, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to respond to our offer and accept that we proceed in the order which we propose, on the understanding that we shall seek to facilitate a debate on the particular matter on which he wishes to spend some time.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

Would the Parliamentary Secretary be so kind as to give his views on Lords Amendment No. 77, which introduces New Schedule 1A? Does he not agree that this constitutes a fundamental redrafting of Clause 2? Does he not recognise that it comprises some 75 lines of vital redefinition of sections of the Rent Act 1968? Does he acknowledge that this first became available to the House at noon yesterday, and does he think that this is a satisfactory way of legislating?

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

The Parliamentary Secretary cannot be allowed to get away with what he said. In effect, he was complaining about the existence of the other place. He should recall that the other place exists in its present form because of the opposition to reform which came from the present Leader of the House. Therefore, to complain now about the other place carries no weight whatever. If the hon. Gentleman had read the newspapers and used his ears in recent weeks, he would have realised that many of their Lordships think that it is high time that reform took place. If it has not, the only reason is that the present Government are concerned with irrelevant and unimportant matters. Moreover, the Parliamentary Secretary cannot use the illness of the Leader of the House as an excuse for the right hon. Gentleman not being here now to deal with complaints against his performance today.

The short notice given to the House of the debate on this measure is a disgrace. Once again, two things are poved: first, the incompetence of the Leader of the House in the way he organises his business, and, second, the fact that the Leader of the House believes that the Commons, let alone the other place, should be used as a rubber stamp to push Government legislation through without argument and as quickly as possible.

The only happy thought left with us about the way the Government have dealt with business today is the knowledge that in the not too distant future the Leader of the House will once again be in Opposition. We shall then recall his performance as Leader of the House, and we shall realise that the great flights of oratory in which he will then indulge will be no more than a mass of meaningless rhetoric, without integrity and implying no more than a desire on the right hon. Gentleman's part to impress us with his words.

What has happened today is a disgrace, and I hope that the country, and the farming industry in particular, will take note of it.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

I felt angry enough before the Minister replied, and I feel more angry now. If he really wanted to meet our grievances —I assure him that they are sincere and honest—he could have done so easily by accepting our amendment to the procedure motion. We could then have debated Clause 30, which both Ministers know touches matters of profound importance on which we must have a discussion. I have never been one to raise points of order in the House, and I hope that I am regarded as a fair and modest man, but I am extremely angry at the way the House has been treated. The Government's behaviour is thoroughly shabby.

The Minister referred to the debates in Committee. We tried to be constructive throughout. I certainly did, and sometimes I agreed with the Government. We had excellent relations in the Standing Committee. There was no filibustering of any kind, and there was no guillotine. But when we reached Report in this House there was no meaningful discussion whatever and no opportunity to discuss the many amendments still to be dealt with.

Those of us who took an interest in the Bill in Committee and who spent quite a lot of time trying to study these matters were hoping to play a useful part in the debate now to follow. But we must have proper warning in order to prepare our speeches on these complicated amendments, and we have had no warning of any kind. How is it possible to make a sensible contribution if the Government announce their business in this way at the last minute? It is no wonder that people outside Parliament are utterly disillusioned with the way we handle our affairs. It is a mockery. If the Minister genuinely wanted to help us, he could have accepted our amendment. I regard his rejection of it as outrageous, and I wish to record my disgust and protest at the way we have been treated.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

May I ask the House to recall that this is a very narrow debate about the point at which we should consider Clause 30?

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

I rejoice that on this occasion I have an opportunity to speak, because I was not able to do so at an earlier stage. I put it to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that, as I see it, the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) put a very fair point. Sweeping all the verbiage away from it, he said that there were four or five main issues which he wished to debate. That is fair enough, but there is no point in the right hon. Member complaining of injustice or waxing eloquent, because most of these things have been discussed before.

If all that the amendment seeks is to have a debate on one of these five matters before the others I hope that will be possible. I do not think my hon. Friends would have any objection. There can be no objection, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the matter in that light.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Strang

We are all glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) is in a position to participate in these proceedings. I am sure that even Opposition Members would want to pay tribute to the contribution that my hon. Friend made in Standing Committee as a Government Whip. Like him, I regret the rather provocative manner in which the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) introduced his remarks.

We want to make progress. It is not our purpose to frustrate the debate on these issues. I tried to emphasise that at the outset. As a gesture of our genuine attempt to have a constructive use of these further six hours on the Floor of the House, we are prepared to accept the right hon. Gentleman's amendment.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

I am grateful to the Minister for at last acceding to my right hon. Friend's request. It is a pity he did not do so earlier. There is one point that I should like to take up with him—that is, his remark that the House has suffered inconvenience because the Bill was brought on much earlier than hon. Members anticipated.

It goes far beyond inconvenience. It is a profound discourtesy and contempt of the House and of hon. Members in this House. I shall give as an example how I was placed in respect of this matter. During the latter part of yesterday evening I happened to be in my constituency. I returned home at about 11.30 last night to find a massage from my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) telling me that the Bill was coming on today. Since we were both concerned with handling the Bill for the Opposition in Committee, we were very much concerned about this.

I repaired at once to the House and arrived here at about a quarter to midnight to discuss with my hon. Friend what these amendments were. May I say in passing that I did not receive the customary courtesy either from the Minister or from any member of his Department advising me that the Bill was coming forward earlier than had been intended. Nor was any communication delivered about what would be the Government's attitude to the Lords amendments. That is normally a courtesy which is extended between the two Front Benches, but no message was received by me or left anywhere for me.

The consequence was that I came to the House, and through the kind offices of the Public Bill Office I was able to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The amendment deals with Clause 30. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is straying well beyond that.

Mr. Rossi

I shall come to that matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall also make another application to you about the nature of the starred amendments. If I may develop my argument, you will see that at the end I shall make a request to you, with your leave.

Through the courtesy of the Public Bill Office, I was given a list of the proposed amendments and the provisional scheduling of them. There were 129 amendments. As hon. Members know, if one is to do this matter properly one has to compare the Lords amendments with the text of the Bill to see how relevant they are. One must then refer back to the Lords Hansard to see exactly what the debate was and what the amendments are all about in order that we may form a judgment on whether to agree or disagree with the Lords amendments.

On the basis of only 10 minutes for each amendment, that is 21 hours' work. That is the burden which was imposed upon us last night. It is absolutely impossible—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Be that as it may, I want to hear the argument why Clause 30 should not appear in the order in which it is set out on the Order Paper. The Minister has accepted the amendment.

Mr. Rossi

I am dealing with this matter and also the submission that I wish to make to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I may debate the jurisdiction with regard to starred amendments——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Let us deal with one matter at a time. That is much simpler and clearer to the House. I should like to hear any argument why Clause 30 should not be placed in the position in which it would be if the amendment were carried.

Mr. Rossi

I shall enlarge upon the amount of time to consider these matters and you will notice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Clause 30 is dealt with by Lords Amendments Nos. 45, 46, 47, 48 and 49. These are two-thirds down the page. Would you like to make a calculation of 10 minutes per amendment in considering what is listed on the Amendment Paper before we reach the amendments to Clause 30? That is the point I have been putting to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you heard what I was saying.

This is relevant to the order in which we take these matters and the amount of time that the Government have allowed to consider them. On the whole, we have not been given the time to consider these matters as we should. My right hon. and hon. Friends behind me did not sec what these amendments were until 2.55 this afternoon, when the list was put in the Lobby. That is not the way in which the House should be treated or the way in which hon. Members should be asked to consider important and serious matters. It is a contempt of the whole parliamentary system.

I appreciate that what I am saying puts the Chair in an extremely difficult position. But these are starred amendments. It is within the discretion of the Chair to decide whether or not they should be selected for debate. That is the normal procedure of the House. It is within your discretion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to consider whether any starred amendments should be selected for debate. The list before us is a provisional selection by Mr. Speaker, and there is nothing binding upon you.

Therefore, in order to protect the House and hon. Members who have not had an opportunity to consider these matters, and on the pure arithmetic with respect to the minutes and hours involved in considering these matters properly, I invite you, without prejudice to my right hon. Friend's amendment, to say that you do not select any of the starred amendments. It is the function of the Chair to protect the House and hon. Members so that they can do their work properly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. I have no power to vary the provisional list of selection made by Mr. Speaker. Therefore, the second point that the hon. Gentleman has raised does not arise. The first point is whether Clause 30 has to be placed in the position in which the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) has suggested. Unless anyone has any objection, I will put that point to the House now.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That being so, would not the right course be to recall Mr. Speaker so that he may hear this argument about whether the starred amendments should be selected? I am sure you will recognise that it is the whole truth that those of us who expected to be able to have a discussion as a group today about the debate tomorrow have come here with no chance of being able to read or to appreciate the amendments. It was after 3 o'clock today that this matter was first drawn to our attention.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) has made a proper protest and we understand the difficulties in which the House has been placed in recent days. I was surprised that he made an attack on a Minister—whether my colleague or myself I do not know. The timing of a debate is not usually a matter for discussion between the Minister and the Shadow Minister. This was discussed through the usual channels. I apologise. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's frustration and the inconvenience he has suffered. It was very proper to make the protest that he did. However, we have taken about 40 minutes of the six hours allotted to an important Bill. I therefore suggest that we now proceed, since we have accepted the reasonable amendment of the right hon.

Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) in view of the strong feelings about Clause 30.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As we have been dealing with other points of order, perhaps I might say that I am confident that Mr. Speaker is well aware that the amendments were starred. The selection is his. I shall therefore now proceed to put the amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: In line 3, at end insert ' to 29,'.

In line 4, delete first ' to' and insert ' Clauses 31 and —[Mr. Pym.]

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.

Ordered, That the Lords Amendments to the Rent (Agriculture) Bill be considered by reference to the following order of Clauses and Schedules, namely, Clause 1, Schedule 2, Clause 30, Clauses 2 to 8, Schedule 3, Clauses 9 to 11, Schedule 4, Clauses 12 to 16, Schedule 5, Clauses 17 to 29, Clauses 31 and 32, Schedule 6, Clauses 33 to 35, Schedule 7, Clauses 36 and 37, Schedule 1, new Schedules, Clauses 38 to 43, Schedules 8 and 9.

  1. Clause 1
    1. cc1400-54
    2. INTERPRETATION AND COMMENCEMENT 20,759 words, 4 divisions
  2. Schedule 2
    1. cc1454-63
    2. PROTECTED OCCUPIERS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT 5,080 words, 2 divisions
Forward to