HC Deb 14 October 1976 vol 917 cc629-42
Mr. Speaker

Business question—Mrs. Thatcher.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 18TH OCTOBER—Second Reading of the Weights and Measures (No. 2) Bill [Lords].

Proceedings on the Trinidad and Tobago Republic Bill [Lords] and on the Resale Prices Bill [Lords], which is a consolidation measure.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed Private Business for consideration at Seven o'clock.

TUESDAY 19TH OCTOBER—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Companies (No. 2) Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 20TH OCTOBER—Motion on the Southern Rhodesia Act 1965 (Continuation) Order.

THURSDAY 21ST OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Energy Bill [Lords].

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed Private Business for consideration at Seven o'clock.

FRIDAY 22ND OCTOBER—There will be a debate on agriculture, on a motion for the Adjournment when EEC Documents R/2274/75, R/1742/76, R/1734/76 and R/2295/76 will be relevant.

MONDAY 25TH OCTOBER—Second Reading of the Retirement of Teachers (Scotland) Bill [Lords], and of the Valuation and Rating (Exempted Classes) (Scotland) Bill [Lords].

Mrs. Thatcher

May I put two points to the right hon. Gentleman? During the overspill period, will he be able to provide a whole day for a foreign affairs debate as we were promised before the House rose? Shall we also have a day for a debate on the report on educational standards in reading by the Bullock Committee which I appointed and which has published its findings although they have not yet been debated?

Mr. Foot

I cannot give a direct reply to the right hon. Lady immediately. I shall certainly look at both her representations and see what we can do.

Mr. Jay

Has my right hon. Friend noticed the Prayer on the Order Paper concerning poultry meat hygiene? Will early time be made available to debate this important issue?

Mr. Foot

I have noticed the motion and shall certainly consider whether we can have a discussion on it.

Mr. Marten

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Friday is not the most appropriate day for a debate on agriculture? As the proposals put forward by the Community, including a sheep meat regime when we already have enough food regimes anyway, are rather stupid, could we not ask the Common Market to delay this matter and take it later so that we can hold our debate in mid-week, which would better suit hon. Members from agricultural constituencies?

Mr. Foot

I apologise to the hon. Member and the House for the inconvenience of having this debate on agriculture on a Friday. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's valid claim, but it is necessary that we should have our debates before the discussions that take place in Brussels. If we do not have our debate next week, the opportunity might be lost. I do not believe that we can get a postponement of the discussions in Brussels the following week. The hon. Gentleman has raised the question of inconvenience for the House arising from the fact that we have to arrange some of our affairs to deal with the situation in the EEC, but it is an inconvenience which is not easily overcome.

Mr. Ashley

Although some hon. Members have been deterred from raising the issue of violence because of the hanging, flogging and birching brigade, this is a very grave social problem and, in view of the fact that rape, mugging, vandalism and football hooliganism are now defacing Great Britain, costing millions of pounds and causing great human misery, is it not time for the House to debate this very serious subject?

Mr. Foot

I understand the public concern on all the subjects raised by my hon. Friend. I heard him raising the same matters on the radio this morning. I am not sure that it is advisable, in the interests of a proper discussion on all these subjects, to lump them together. There may be different causes in different cases. I am not opposed to a debate when we can find time, but we do not have all that much time.

Mr. Beith

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the great consternation felt about the reduced frequency with which Questions on Scotland and foreign affairs are now to be taken? Will he undertake to review the time allotted to Questions and relate it in future Sessions to the average number of Questions tabled to each Minister? Is the writ for the Walsall, North by-election to be moved next week? If not, why not?

Mr. Foot

The moving of writs is not my business, although I take some interest in this academic question. I cannot make any statement about it to the hon. Gentleman.

The fact that time has to be made available for a new Minister to answer Questions means that there is a change in the roster. We have followed the normal procedures by which such changes are made. However, the changes do not have the consequences described by the hon. Gentleman because in the spill-over period there will be no reduction in, for example, opportunities for Scottish or foreign affairs Questions. If there are doubts or difficulties about what may happen in the new Session, we shall be prepared to consider all representations and try to make arrangements which are as convenient as possible for the House. In the spill-over period, there will be no reduction in the amount of time for Scottish Questions and there is no desire on our part to try to reduce the available time.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that although there may be no infringement on the time for Scottish Questions in the coming Session, they will be taken once every four weeks and that must affect their place on the roster in the next Session? Does he not realise that there are seven English Ministries represented in one man in the form of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and that it is essential that Scottish Members have this chance to raise Questions pending the establishment of a Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Foot

The answer that I have given to the hon. Gentleman previously is the correct one. For the remainder of this Session of Parliament there is no reduction in the opportunity to put Scottish Questions. If in the new Session it is thought that there may be any injury involved in the change in the roster, we shall look at it and have consultations with others in the House to see whether we can make the best provision possible.

As to the future, and having a proper opportunity for Scottish Questions to be adequately discussed, I fully agree that we should have eventually an Assembly in Scotland which can discuss many of these matters.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is the Leader of the House aware that while we as Welsh Members regard Welsh Question time as important, we fully appreciate that as Welsh Members we have the right to take part in all debates in the House of Commons?

Mr. Foot

I think that is a lesson that should be learned by all hon. Members, as my right hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his answer concerning next Friday's business? Will he bear in mind that those on the Select Committee dealing with European secondary legislation are deeply concerned at the fact that three major debates should take place in one day? Does the Leader of the House not think it advisable to have these debates one at a time during the coming week? Will he therefore reconsider what he has already said?

Mr. Foot

I do not believe that we can rearrange the business for next week, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take into acount very seriously the recommendations made by the Scrutiny Committee. I think that the Scrutiny Committee would acknowledge that the Government have done this.

Once it was decided that we had to have the debate next week, we believed that it was most convenient to have it on Friday. I am sorry that it has to be on Friday, but we have to have it then in order to carry out another of the Scrutiny Committee's recommendations, namely, that we should debate EEC matters before decisions are reached in Brussels.

Mr. Loyden

In view of the hardships that may well fall on the elderly and other sections of the community in the coming winter period arising from disconnections of electricity and gas, will my right hon. Friend give very urgent consideration to discussing in the House the Oakes Report which put forward proposals covering this matter?

Mr. Foot

I recognise what my hon. Friend says about the importance of this subject and will look at the possibility of a debate. But, as the whole House recognises, the pressure of time is very considerable. I will look at it as one possibility.

Mr. Rathbone

Now that we have this very fine box in one corner of the House, will the Leader of the House make time available for us to discuss the further step towards the broadcasting of the proceedings of the House for the benefit of the House and of the nation?

Mr. Foot

I am not quite sure whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting a fresh debate on the televising of the House of Commons. I am not sure that we can have a debate on this in the very near future, because it was discussed on a fairly recent occasion. The House came to a decision on the matter—not the decision that I should have wished—and I think that decision holds.

There was a decision about broadcasting the proceedings of the House, and the provision of the necessary facilities in the House, just before the recess, and it is that decision which governs the operations now being put in hand.

Mr. Fernyhough

In view of the business which still has to come back from the Lords, will my right hon. Friend say how long this Session is to be extended and when the new Session is likely to begin?

Mr. Foot

We think that the new Session is likely to begin on 17th November. We have a few weeks' business to transact before then. We hope that we shall get it all through in time intact, and that is the Government's intention.

Mr. du Cann

Is the Leader of the House aware that it is the considered opinion of the Chairmen of Select Committees of the House, which I have been asked to state to him, that in the past it has been the habit to allow insufficient time for debates on the reports of the Select Committees?

To take the right hon. Gentleman's mind beyond next week and beyond the overspill, if programmes are now being formulated for the new Session of Parliament, will he do his best to see that this past thoroughly unsatisfactory habit is changed and that adequate time is allowed as some recompense for the diligent and important work done by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House?

Mr. Foot

I certainly agree with the principle which lies behind what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I believe that Select Committee Reports should be discussed in the House. Indeed, what the Select Committees recommend is not the view of the House until the House itself has had a chance of looking at these matters and passing an opinion on them. In recent years it has been the experience that some of the debates on the Select Committee Reports have not always been the most exciting of our debates. But that is not a reason for trying to depart from the principle. We shall look at what the right hon. Gentleman has said and see how far we can accommodate his suggestion.

Mr. Peyton

Is the Leader of the House in a position to state the Government's attitude to the order in which Oral Questions appear on the Order Paper and to the Select Committee's recommendation on that subject? We should like the Leader of the House to look again at the matter of how often Foreign Office Questions appear on the Order Paper. This is of great importance at the moment. It would be wrong to allow foreign affairs Questions to go too low down the list.

We appreciate very much the courtesy of the right hon. Gentleman's reaction to the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Mr. Marten) and Devon, West (Mr. Mills), but I hope he will look again at this whole question of accommodating EEC material. I recognise that it is a very difficult problem, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have another look at it.

Mr. Foot

Taking the last question first, we had a debate on how we were to deal with EEC business, and many of the suggestions made in that debate have been incorporated in the proposals we have recommended to the House as to how we should deal with EEC business in future. I am not saying that we managed to accept or to offer to put into operation all the suggestions made in that debate, but we made a genuine response to what was said, and will continue to do so. But trying to compress the business of the House in order to accommodate the necessity of having debates on EEC business before the decisions are reached in Brussels, remains a difficult problem. We are trying to meet both requirements.

As to the order of Oral Questions, this is primarily a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, but I think that Members generally would welcome the adoption of the proposed change, perhaps initially on an experimental basis. Certainly the Government are prepared to support that. We hope to proceed on that basis for a period and to see how it works out.

There is no alteration before the Session ends in the number of occasions on which Foreign Office Questions can be put. I have no doubt that in the discussions we have had, that has been taken into account. If there is any fear that in altering the roster we are interfering with the position of Foreign Office Questions, we shall be prepared to look at the way in which we devise the roster for the next Session.

Mr. Speaker

In response to what the Lord President has just said about the arrangement of Questions, if that appears to be the will of the House I will give instructions to enable the matter to be pursued as an experiment.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there have been many occasions when the rota of Questions has been altered in the House, without, in some instances, any protest at all?

Will my right hon. Friend understand that some of us are deeply offended by the way in which it seems that he is constantly giving way to the blackmail of a group on the Conservative Benches? Will he take a suggestion from me, and. instead of constantly giving way, give this group of cry babies a rattle apiece?

Mr. Foot

I am unwilling to give way to blackmail from any quarter of the House, I hope.

Mr. Skinner

Not from me.

Mr. Foot

I do not think that my hon. Friend has ever attempted to apply blackmail to me, and I am sure that if it occurred I should take note of the fact immediately.

I was seeking simply to state the facts. There has been a misapprehension about them. It was thought by some right hon. and hon. Members that the rearrangement of the roster in a way which was thought generally to meet the wishes of the House would injure Scottish Questions in this Session. That is not the case The interests of Scottish Members have to be taken into account irrespective of the part of the House in which they may sit. The majority of hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies sit on the Government Benches, and it is their rights that I am taking into account along with those of Scottish Members in other parts of the House.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There have been a number of references to Question Time and to an "experimental period". I understand that this is based on Mr. Speaker's Report. But it seems to me that, before we go ahead with this, there should at least be a brief explanation so that hon. Members can be fully aware—[Interruption.] I see an Opposition Member waving a copy of the report at me. But it is not right that an agreement can be made quickly in a couple of words between the Chair and the two Front Benches without hon. Members having an opportunity to discuss it.

Mr. Foot

I understand what my hon. Friend says. There is a recommendation from the Procedure Committee. It was the general agreement of the House and of right hon. and hon. Members in different parts of it that the matter should be referred to the Procedure Committee. The Committee has recommended how we should deal with it, and I was merely saying that the Government thought it right to proceed with this on an experimental basis. Mr. Speaker has said that he is quite prepared to do that. I think that that is the best way to proceed.

I know that there are many reports of the Procedure Committee coming before us which require to be debated and possibly voted upon before their recommendations are put into operation. But I think that this is a case where we can proceed as I suggest. If we find that it does not work or if Members think that it is unfair or working adversely, we can look at it afresh very soon. But I do not think that it is necessary to have a debate and a decision on this report.

Mr. Clegg

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the great concern in the fishing ports about the negotiations concerning the EEC 50-mile limit and, even more important to the deep-sea ports, the Icelandic agreement, which runs out next month? If we cannot have a debate on the subject next week, perhaps we can have a statement from the responsible Minister to let us know how matters are proceeding.

Mr. Foot

I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and see whether he considers it convenient to make a statement, but I do not think that it will be possible to arrange a debate.

Mr. Palmer

May I impress upon my right hon. Friend the matter raised by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) about the need for Reports of Select Committees to be debated? My right hon. Friend said that when these debates have been arranged in the past they have not always been the most exciting ones. However, will he agree that excitement is not always a test of quality in a debate?

Mr. Foot

I am not saying that it is always a test. However, the amount of interest that the House shows must be taken into account to some degree. That does not mean that I am retracting what I said to the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). I believe that the whole of the business of the rest of the House of Commons is subordinate to this Chamber. All reports should be made known and as many of them as possible should be debated. But of course there is tremendous pressure for debating time in this Chamber itself.

Mr. Hastings

May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and ask him specifically whether he will at least arrange at an early date a debate on vandalism, which is causing increasing and deep concern in many areas of the country? Has not the time come when it should be ventilated in the Chamber?

Mr. Foot

I do not think that I have anything to add to what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). I am not offering an immediate debate on the subject, and I am dubious whether all these different subjects should be lumped together in one debate. But I should not be opposed to a debate at a later date. It is obviously a matter within the range of the Home Office and debates under Home Office procedures.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Government supporters see the secret deal of the Bank of England with Slater Walker and its seeming attempt to blackmail the seamen as clear indications that this so-called nationalised institution is under no real public control or accountability? May I appeal to my right hon. Friend to arrange time to debate the machinations of the Bank of England as soon as possible?

Mr. Foot

I cannot offer a special debate on the subject, but obviously it is a matter which can be raised by my hon. Friend in any general economic debate we have.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Will the Leader of the House give consideration to the arrangements for the new computer clock which now adorns the House? At the moment it reads "0355". However it is now 1555, or very nearly eight bells. Might not it be for the convenience of the House, since we work such odd hours, if it were adjusted to the 24-hour clock or, alternatively, perhaps to one which might appeal more to Mr. Speaker, showing the number of hours or minutes which have elapsed since the beginning of a speech?

Mr. Foot

It seems to me that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has not introduced a non-controversial topic. Therefore, I had better not tread further into what he has proposed.

Mr. Greville Janner

In view of the present anomalies in the retirement system, not least among coal miners, is there any prospect of an early debate on this subject?

Mr. Foot

I cannot offer an early debate on this subject, as on several others, for reasons which hon. Members know. But that again is an issue which can be raised in a general economic debate.

Mr. Michael Latham

Since it has rained almost continuously since the appointment of the drought Minister, the Rain God from Birmingham, may we have a statement next week on how the drought siutation is going? It may be that we shall need some flood prevention measures soon.

Mr. Foot

I shall ask my right hon. Friend to make a statement. However, I do not think that anyone can complain that his appointment brought such immediate results.

Mr. Burden

Would it not help the Government to keep to their time table about bringing this Session of Parliament to an end if, in view of the scathing remarks made about the Dock Work Regulation Bill by ex-Cabinet Ministers of the Labour Party in another place yesterday, the Leader of the House dropped this Bill entirely?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have no intention of dropping that Bill. It is a Bill which is in the national interest. We are very sorry but not surprised that this point is not understood by Lord George-Brown.

Mr. Ronald Bell

With regard to next Friday's business, will the Leader of the House realise that we have not yet found the right answer for this European secondary legislation and that it is not so much a question of a Friday or a mid-week day? Is it not the case that there is such a mass of paper reaching hon. Members that the importance of some of these Orders is not realised before a debate, with the result that the attendance and the interest is thin? We have to find some other way. Can the right hon Gentleman suggest one?

Mr. Foot

I accept that fully. I do not think that we have found the proper answer to this question yet. What we proposed in response to the debate a few months ago makes a modest advance in helping to deal with it. I think that we shall have to return to the subject on future occasions.

Mr. Goodhew

On the subject of next Wednesday's business, since the sanctions against Rhodesia were intended to force Mr. Ian Smith to agree to a settlement acceptable to the British Government, and since Mr. Ian Smith has now accepted unequivocally the package deal put to him by Dr. Kissinger and agreed by the British Government, what is the point of maving the continuation of the sanctions Order at this moment, just before there is to be a conference in Geneva? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the whole thing will be brought to the ground by the equivocation of the Foreign Minister this week?

Mr. Foot

I repudiate all of the accusations made against the Foreign Secretary by the hon. Gentleman. All the other matters he has raised can be raised in the debate next week. I have no doubt that what he says will be suitably demolished.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the remaining four hon. Members who wish to put a question to the Lord President. I hope that they will be brief.

Mr. Churchill

I am sure that it was not the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to mislead the House with regard to the roster of Questions. Is he aware, however, that because of the doubling of time available for environment and transport Questions, the time available in this Session for Scottish Office, Foreign Office and Common Market Questions has been halved and that, after next Wednesday's Question period, there will be no opportunity for another four weeks to address a Question to the Foreign Secretary? Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider this whole question of doubling the time available to environment and transport at the expense of Scottish, Foreign Office and EEC Questions, as this is wholly unacceptable to a large section of this House?

Mr. Foot

I certainly did not intend to mislead the House, nor have I done so. I said that there was no reduction in the number of occasions during the rest of this Session when Questions could be put on Scottish Office and Foreign Office matters. If the alterations imply that at a later stage, in the new Session, there will be some difficulties, we are prepared to look at this again and discuss it, as we have discussed all these matters of how to arrange the roster. We want to arrange the roster in a way that is fair for hon. Members in all parts of the House. There is no attempt to mislead the House in any sense whatever. What we want to do is to meet the wishes of all hon. Members in the best way we can.

Mr. Moate

May I refer to an earlier question on broadcasting? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that further resolutions will be necessary before any further steps can be taken with the sound broadcasting arrangements? Does the right hon. Gentleman expect to introduce those resolutions in this Session? On the question of these clocks, can he tell us whether they were as cheap as they look and can he, perhaps, tell us how to get rid of them?

Mr. Foot

The arrangements about broadcasting, and the installations, were approved by the House prior to the recess. Everything that has been done in this matter is as a result of what the House has decided. As to the clocks, the decision to install them, and the question of their artistic quality, was dealt with before I arrived on the scene. The House decided quite a long time ago that this is what should happen. That is how it has occurred.

Mr. Reid

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time soon for a debate on the problems facing the offshore platform and module construction industry in view of the worries within that industry about employment prospects and orders?

Mr. Foot

The employment prospects in the platform industry are a matter of great importance. I cannot offer any prospect of a special debate on the subject. As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as my hon. Friends who have raised these matters know, there are other ways in which they can be brought to the attention of the Ministers concerned.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is strong feeling among Scottish Members of Parliament of all parties that it would be wrong to reduce opportunities for asking Questions on Scottish affairs in the next Session? Can he tell me why the Rhodesian Order is being discussed next week? Would it not be possible to postpone that until 5th November?

Mr. Foot

We have to have the Order carried through. I understand that there was a desire to have a debate on Rhodesia and I would have thought that there should not be a complaint on that score. I repeat, in reply to the hon. Gentleman's first question, that we are not reducing any opportunities for Scottish Questions. If there are representations to be made by my hon. Friends from Scotland, or from others, about the new Session we shall certainly take them into account.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I turn to the next business I ought to make clear what I said earlier. My agreement to what the Lord President said relates only to the order in which Members' Questions appear on the Order Paper. The departmental issue is nothing to do with me.