HC Deb 06 April 1977 vol 929 cc1255-310

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House at its rising tomorrow do adjourn till Tuesday 19th April.—[Mr. Foot.]

5.1 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

There are two reasons why the House should not pass this motion until certain statements have been made by the Government.

First, I should like to bring to the attention of the Leader of the House the situation of the British film industry, which is of national importance. I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the strange saga that has been going on for a long time. It was as long ago as 22nd July 1976 that the Secretary of State announced a decision to set up a committee to carry forward the work of the Terry working party. He announced then that the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) had agreed to chair the committee, which would be known as the Interim Action Committee. The statement was followed by an exchange of letters between the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State and it was then said, in July 1976, that the members of the committee were expected to be appointed soon. So far so good.

Then there was silence. I am sure that I cannot be alone in having received representations from constituents who are worried that nothing is happening. So I started to ask questions and I was told: My right hon. Friend hopes to announce the names of the members of the committee before the end of this month."—[Official Report, 18th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 259.] That was in January 1977, although the committee had been set up in July 1976. I was patient, but on the 4th February I again asked when the rest of the names would be announced, and I was told: My right hon. Friend hopes to be able to announce these names shortly."—[Official Report, 4th February 1977; Vol. 925, c. 477.] So the announcement would no longer be made at the end of the month but "shortly"—and that was virtually what was said in July, six months earlier. During the following week, on 11th February, I was told that the right hon. Member for Huyton would chair the Interim Action Committee and I was told again that the names of the other members of the committee would be announced "as soon as possible". I am sure that the Leader of the House will admit that saying "as soon as possible"—when the original statement was made in July 1976 and had been supplemented by an Answer in January saying that the names would be announced at the end of that month—is not good enough.

We are now in April, and the names still have not been announced. I want to ask, and the House needs to know before agreeing to the motion, how many persons have been approached to join the committee and why they have declined. I ask whether it is now fair to expect the right hon. Member for Huyton to continue chairing this committee—which has not yet made up all its membership and which has not met once—when he has, at the request of the Government, undertaken the chairmanship of what we have been told is a major committee looking into the future of the City. We need to know, before agreeing to the motion, whether the Government feel that the film industry is so unimportant that the names cannot be announced nine months after we were originally told that the committee would be set up. That is the first of the points about which I am disturbed, and I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to assure us in his reply to this brief debate when the names will be announced and how many people have been invited to sit on the committee.

The second matter is one of local interest but with national implications. I am glad that the Leader of the House is with us now because both he and I are avid readers of the Hampstead and Highgate Express which, I believe we would agree, is probably the best local paper in London. The Leader of the House, together with many of his right hon. and hon. Friends, are my constituents—although they might not vote for me—and are purchasers of the Hampstead and Highgate Express.

No doubt the Leader of the House will know—apart from reading that paper—of the successful establishment of the Fairhazel Tenants Co-operative which bought a fairly large estate from one of the old Hampstead estates—the Maryon Wilson Estate—a year or so ago. I was glad to be able to assist in that and I was also glad that the Department of the Environment gave a major amount of help to enable that co-operative to establish itself.

The co-operative has to consider the fixing of rents for those of its members who do not necessarily wish to purchase the properties in which they live. The co-operative wishes to go along—indeed it must—with the system of fair rents, and for that purpose it is important, as I am sure the Leader of the House would agree, to keep a balance between the landlord and tenant, whether the landlord is a large one or a co-operative and whatever type the tenant may be.

Of assistance to tenants in urban areas—where the problems are different from those in the rest of the country—is the need to establish the size of the flat in question. Therefore, the maximum amount of information needs to be made available on the rent register so that tenants and landlords can see clear comparisons.

In the rent register that is kept by the rent officer for Camden the floor areas used to be entered, and that was of great assistance to landlords and tenants. That information was collected until about 1975 when the Camden rent officer took it upon himself to decide that the practice of noting floor areas in the register was dubious. He stopped something that had been in existence for several years, that was of great value and that had been commenced by his predecessor because the London Rent Assessment Panel had asked for a copy of every registration together with a note of the floor areas. When the panel stopped collecting the copies this rent officer took it upon himself to cease noting the floor areas. This is causing great unhappiness in my constituency and elsewhere in Camden.

The rent officer takes the view that the rent register is a legal document and that it should contain only those items that are required by law to be entered therein. That is his view in April 1977. But in 1972 his predecessor took a different view on the instructions of the London Rent Assessment Panel.

In order to quiet the anxiety of my constituents we need to know—[Interruption.] the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) is making comments from a seated position. I was going to give way but he does not seem to want to intervene.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Perhaps the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) will give way to me instead. I am most grateful to him for doing so.

Surely the rent officer is not under the instructions of the local authority in such matters as complying with his duty to register certain facts, and he is not under instruction from the rent panel of London or anybody else. He must obey a set of instructions and nothing else—even if his predecessor has made a mistake in his interpretation of law.

Mr. Finsberg

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) was here when I started. I do not think that he was. I was talking of the need for some consistency and explaining why we need to hear from the Government what can be done to clarify the situation. One rent officer, at the request of the London Rent Assessment Panel, decided that floor areas should be noted and there was no argument or query at that time.

I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that this is a House of Commons matter of importance to my constituents and not a question of party polemics in which we often indulge in the House. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will invite the Secretary of State for the Environment to look at this matter and to realise that it is causing anxiety among tenants. I speak only for Camden because I have received representations only from Camden, but, although other rent officers in London still note the floor areas on their registers, the practice may have ceased in some districts and other tenants may be worried.

I hope that the Secretary of State will send a circular to rent officers explaining that the original practice was desirable and that it is for the Minister or the courts—and not a rent officer—to change the views of a previous rent officer. Clarification is needed on this point.

5.11 p.m.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

I rarely intervene in debates on the Adjournment because, like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Leader of the House, I have heard hundreds of impassioned speeches about why we should not go away so quickly, should come back earlier or should not go away at all. Those are not my aims because I am as ready as most other hon. Members for a rest at this time of the year.

I wish to draw the attention of the Government and the House to a problem which Parliament has considered before and which has now reached a stage which means that there will be a grim and unhappy Eastertide for many of my constituents because of the continuing industrial dispute at Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories.

The dispute is now in its 34th week, and I pay tribute to the courage and steadfastness of the workers who have stood firm—especially as they are mainly Gujurati immigrants with a different background to that of an industrial society, who came to this country seeking a welcome and found instead deplorable working conditions.

I accuse the management of Grunwick of being intransigent to a degree rarely witnessed in the modem industrial world and of being totally obstructive to the work of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service with which they are still refusing to co-operate, even though its report has now been published. This has meant a delay from the time when, with tongue in cheek, they agreed last November to accept arbitration to 10th March when, because of delaying tactics, the report under Section 12 of the Employment Protection Act 1975 was only finally published.

It is this delay that I am seeking to get Parliament to influence, because it means that arbitration cannot be forced into action until 24th May, and that is far too long a time for the wives and children of my constituents to remain suffering. It means that the dispute will have lasted 14 months and there is still no sign of a settlement despite what has been done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

I find the conduct of the managing director reprehensible to a degree bordering on fanaticism, and it is to be regretted that some hon. Members opposite joined the disruptive National Association for Freedom in condoning his behaviour and even giving financial and legal support to extract the last lawyers' quibble in an attempt to subvert the will of Parliament as contained in Acts.

I quote from a report signed by three responsible organisations—the Greater London Association of Trades Councils, the No. 8 District Committee of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and the South-East Regional Council of the Trades Union Congress. The report, dated 4th April this year, says: Since the recommendation was issued on the 9th March the company has sought to physically intimidate the strikers in order to smash the strike. The company knows that in two months time it would face a decision by the Central Arbitration Committee on Wages and Conditions for its workers if it has not smashed the strike by them. There have been seven specific acts of physical violence on the strikers since the 9th March. This includes one of the strikers being beaten up by the Managing Director of Grunwick, and another striker being throttled to the stage where he lost consciousness. Whilst picketing chemists shops who distribute Bonuspool and Trucolor films for Grunwick the strikers had buckets of water thrown over them, been physically assaulted, and although complaints have been made to the police no action has been taken against the persons carrying out these assaults. The laboratories are in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson), who is the Minister for Housing and Construction. We have seen the local chief superintendent of police and have been assured that the police will be taking action and will do their best to be fair to the pickets and to maintain law and order if the actions of the management continues in these rather difficult circumstances.

When Mr. Speaker gave his permission under Standing Order No. 9 for the House to debate this subject on 4th November, the Opposition benches were in full cry about the need to maintain law and order. What efforts are now being made to secure the following up of the law contained in the Employment Protection Act? What influence is being exerted by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) who initiated that debate?

I challenge the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen to use their influence on Grunwick to get the company to comply with the ACAS report and to declare themselves as humane and compassionate hon. Members should in condemning the slave-like way in which workers are treated in this particular company. The Grunwick working conditions are a disgrace to the country and would not be tolerated in any other industry in my constituency or indeed in any other part of the United Kingdom.

The matter is urgent and fraught with potential danger because the whole of the trade union movement rightly intends to see that my constituents get fair play. If Grunwick persist conflict may escalate. I pay tribute to Mr. Len Murray of the TUC, Mr. Tom Jackson and other responsible trade union leaders who came to my constituency on Sunday 12th December to pledge their support and to give encouragement to workers seeking elementary rights.

From 12th April—when the House will be in recess—miners, engineers, postal workers and every section of the trade union movement will be converging on Willesden and manning a 24-hour-a-day picket until the management of Grunwick can bring themselves to come into the twentieth century, get round a table and deal with these matters as they should be dealt with between responsible managements and workers and to implement the ACAS report.

I apologise to my right hon. Friend, the Minister responsible for Sport, for delaying his debate. I know that were he permitted to speak, as a leading member of the trade union concerned, APEX, he could put this case more cogently and effectively than I can. But if my eleventh-hour appeal is wasted and the ACAS report is not accepted, conflict will follow and Mr. Ward and his fellow directors will stand condemned in the eyes of all reasonable and fair-minded people, including hon. Members in all parts of the House.

5.18 p.m.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

I wish to raise a matter concerning unemployment, the introduction of licences to work in a certain occupation and the Government's failure to issue sufficient licences. It is a further example of the attack that the Government have been making on the self-employed and the small business man.

It is wrong for the House to go on holiday without the Government giving further time for discussion and without a Treasury Minister giving us an explanation of what steps are being taken to put right the very unfair situation in which the Government have placed 35,000 people in the building industry and their employees.

The Government's alleged purpose in the introduction of this legislation was to prevent tax evasion, in which we all support them. The document issued by the Inland Revenue entitled "Construction Industry Tax Deduction Scheme" says clearly that the purpose of the certificate relates solely to tax matters. If that were so, none of us would have any cause for complaint. Unfortunately, that is not the situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), who raised this matter in Questions on a number of occasions, and I went to the Treasury with a deputation. We were heard sympathetically by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The right hon. Gentleman appeared very understanding and sympathetic, but he has done nothing. We should not allow him to go on holiday, any more than we should go, without seeking to have this injustice put right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) has also had experience of constituents who have been unfairly denied the right to work as building sub-contractors because they have been denied 714 certificates. The refusal in the case of one of his constituents was on the ground that he had grown a moustache. Frivolous though it may sound, that was, in the eyes of the Treasury, an adequate reason for denying the right to work to that particular sub-contractor.

The conditions under which people have been refused the right to work include, among others, that they must have been in continuous employment for the previous three years. I am astonished that a Labour Government should introduce legislation to penalise people for being unemployed. But that is what they are doing. If a man has not been in continuous contract work for the last three years, he is ineligible for and is denied a 714 certificate.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is not another essential prerequisite for getting the certificate that a man must have been in good health and that, if he is away from work through sickness, that may deny him the right to a 714 certificate?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Indeed, it goes further than that. I know of a sub-contractor in the building industry who had a broken hand and therefore obviously could not carry on his work. For that reason his work was interrupted and he was ineligible for a certificate.

Another sub-contractor, who went to visit his dying mother in Scotland and was away for some time, thereby breaking his continuous service, was refused a certificate.

Another example of people being refused the right to work concerns those who have worked on the Continent. We are in the Common Market. There are supposed to be arrangements which allow people to move from one place to another within the Common Market. It is unfair to allow them to do that if they are to be denied the right to work when they come back.

The Smaller Business Bureau has brought to my attention the case of a plasterer who has been denied a 714 certificate because he does not have £250,000 worth of insurance cover. I hope that the Leader of the House will take account of this interesting case. The Smaller Business Bureau found that if this man did not have £250,000 worth of insurance cover, he could not have a 714 certificate and therefore could not, in effect, work. What does a plasterer have? He has a bucket, some plaster, a board for mixing it on and a plastering trowel. It is ludicrous to insist that he should have £250,000 worth of insurance cover. It is also grossly unfair that the Government should behave in this way.

There is also the question of adequate premises. Who is fairly to judge that? It is certainly not a tax consideration which was alleged to be the reason for introducing this measure.

There is no right of appeal against the tax. It may be no fault of the man concerned. One of my constituents who lives near Newbury in North Hampshire has a problem because there has been a delay on the part of a Government Department in returning correspondence. Apparently there was so long a delay in providing answers to further questions that the matter has been dragging on for over a year.

In other cases the accountants concerned may be ill. In one case brought to my attention by the Smaller Business Bureau and the 714 Campaign the man's wife looked after the books. It is not unusual in a small business for the wife to do the accounts. In this particular case, the wife became ill and eventually died. As a result, the records were incomplete and in arrears. There is no appeal against the refusal of the right to work in that situation. I believe that we should not go on holiday until the Government announce that they will do something about this matter.

On 16th March the Treasury issued a circular, of which I have a copy, Sub-Contractors in the Construction Industry. Late applications for tax certificates. It states: "It appears"—as if it were some strange thing coming out of the ground of which it had not heard before— that some contractors and local authorities have not received evidence of certificates from their sub-contractors". I understand that "some" amounts to 12,000. That is not a bad "some" appearing out of the ground as an extraordinary and unexpected animal.

Apart from that, there have been 25,000 refusals of certificates—many without reason, many without right of appeal—and about 35,000 referred back. These are serious matters affecting the livelihoods of a surprisingly large number of citizens who are entitled to look to this House to right the ill from which they have been suffering.

In response to a recent Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, the Treasury gave an indication—it did not say it, but there was the implication—that it would allow re-applications from some of those who had had certificates refused without right of appeal. That is an interesting development which we should pursue. Furthermore, I believe that a Treasury Minister should come to the House and assure us—not imply, but positively assure us—that re-applications will be considered and that reasons will be given if 714 certificates are refused.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

One of the most shocking things is that, when I have written to the Treasury or raised the matter on an Adjournment debate, there have been second thoughts and certificates have in the end been granted. It is disgraceful, but true, that the best way to get a 714 certificate is to write to one's Member of Parliament. I hope that my hon. Friend will spread that message widely. It may be that some of the 25,000 who have been refused certificates will then write to us as apparently the only way of getting certificates. It is an abuse of the privilege of the House that that should be so, but it appears to be the case.

Mr. Mitchell

I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for having made that point.

If a man does not have a certificate, 35 per cent. of his contract price is stopped. He cannot pay 100 per cent. wages to his employees with only 65 per cent. of his contract price coming through and having to wait about 14 months before it is paid. That is an impossible situation. The cash flow position will drive many people out of business in two or three months, if not less. In a system which involves a licence to work, as this does, there is a duty upon the House to insist that Treasury Ministers should justify the refusal of 714 certificates.

5.29 p.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

It is abundantly clear that, as always on these occasions, most hon. Members have already gone off on holiday before reaching a decision on the motion one way or the other.

I am not sure whether the points which I wish to raise or the representations which I wish to make should be directed to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. But they clearly are matters for him, because they involve legislation, but legislation which is subject to the new consultative process which has been set up with the Liberal Party. The subject with which I am concerned was specifically mentioned in the Prime Minister's statement and written agreement with the Liberal Party.

The point that I wish to raise concerns the direct labour Bill. We have not seen the Bill, and I do not want the House to go into recess until we do see it. The situation is that 400 citizens in Birmingham are to get the chop because of this delay. Last Thursday afternoon in Birmingham it was announced by the Tory leadership of the city council that the construction department was to be closed. This means that 400 skilled craftsmen will be sent up the road, not straight away, but at the end of the contracts. I want the House not to adjourn, so that we can see the Bill and make representations on it. Because of the machinations of the Government and the Liberal Party we have no idea what will be in the Bill, as distinct from what was in the manifesto.

The construction department that will be affected by the Bill was set up only three years ago. Because builders in and around Birmingham refused to tender for city contracts this department was set up by the city itself. The position is that 90 per cent. of the employees, including managerial staffs, came from the private sector of the building industry, and last week they warned Councillor Bosworth what would happen. They know that if the department disappears the old system of ring prices will come into operation again. The builders will ring one another to decide the price at which to tender, and by so doing they will screw the city's ratepayers.

I want to ensure that representations can be made on the Bill so that when a department has been set up it cannot be closed willy-nilly. This department has not cost the Birmingham ratepayers a penny piece. Last year—its first full year of operation—it made a profit of £170,000. That is not my figure, but that given by the city treasurer in accordance with the procedures laid down for checking on direct building departments.

One must bear in mind all the apprentices who have been taken on by the department. A similar procedure has been followed by many cities, but Birmingham leads in this matter. The building industry is notorious for not training its own skilled labour. The apprentices who have been taken on will not be able to complete their apprenticeships. The department contracted to hire £150,000 worth of machinery on a long lease. This sum will be on the debit side when the accounts are wound up, with the result that it will be a burden on the ratepayers.

What is more, almost a week after the closure announcement Birmingham City Corporation has still not informed the trade unions involved. It has not so much as written a letter or made a phone call to the trade unions telling them what is to happen. All the legislation that has been put through the House while I have been a Member of it, and all the legislation put through by my right hon. Friend when he was in his other post, does not mean a thing to Birmingham City Council. There has not been so much as a phone call in connection with the 90-day period that is required under the Employment Protection Act. There have been no discussions with NALGO or UCATT.

The city council has been warned that the situation will arise that the private builders will get their little fingers into what they see as the public sector pie. These are the people represented by Conservative Members who bemoan the expenditure of public money, but when it comes to firms in their constituencies being affected by public expenditure cuts they are the first to complain. The quid pro quo is that when the direct building department is closed there will be more work for the private sector. I hear someone on the Conservative Benches saying "Hear, hear". That confirms what I am saying. It means that there will be an opportunity for those who wish to do so to persist with the lump and to abuse the tax laws.

We heard a speech a little earlier from the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Mitchell). All that Conservative Members are on about is tax evasion, just as they were on 9th February when the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) had a debate on his motion. That is what they are on about. They are on about tax exemption for the lump in the building industry. Large cities cannot get good service from private building contractors, and they are therefore forced to do the building themselves. They are not prepared to see their ratepayers screwed because of the fiddling of prices. All that will be at stake if we do not see the appearance of the direct labour Bill.

I do not think that we ought to go into recess until my right hon. Friend has talked to the Leader of the Liberal Party, put to him the situation that has arisen in Birmingham, and got agreement that the Bill will contain provisions to ensure that direct labour departments that are in operation and viable are not closed. I do not want the departments to be a burden on the ratepayer. They must operate on good commercial principles, just as the NEB does, so that the public sector has a yardstick by which to measure private sector contracts. The department in Birmingham has gone on to the open market in the past three years and won contracts, which is much to its credit. The proposed closure is deplorable.

Many of my constituents who are employed by the department are in touch with me, and they are afraid that they will lose their jobs. A Mr. Price wrote to say that this department is in no way spongeing on the ratepayer, and he added: As a ratepayer, I should myself recommend the closing of the department if that were so". The department does not wish to sponge on the ratepayers, but the men concerned know, because they have come from the private sector, that if the department is closed the ratepayers will be screwed again by the private sector of the building industry.

It is not good enough to let this go by the by. Government intervention is necessary. They should bring the Bill forward urgently, perhaps more urgently than was originally contemplated, so that those departments that are in operation are not allowed to be run down by vindictive, doctrinaire Tory councillors. The department will be kept in being for the next 18 months while contracts are run down. It will be there with its administrative overheads, its apprentices and its capital equipment, but as from last Thursday no tenders will be possible for any contracts anywhere in the city, be it a city contract or a private one.

We want measures to prevent local dictators in Tory town halls from making this sort of decision. If they want to chop the department they should have the courage to do so straight away. They said in their election manifesto that there would be no redundancies, and that nobody's job would be at stake, but even today they cannot tell the 400 workers in that department what is to happen to them. They have not told the trade unions what is to happen. They have not informed Members of Parliament who represent the city what is to happen. I know that if my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) gets back in time he will seek to speak on this matter.

My right hon. Friend's attention has been drawn to the problem that I wished to raise, and I hope that the private office of the Liberal Party will read today's Hansard and take note of what has been said, because there are no Liberal Members here today. They want their 12 days rest and recuperation. They will need it for the next term, which will be tougher than have the past few weeks.

I think that my right hon. Friend owes it to the House, to the citizens of Birmingham, to the leadership of this former vigorous Labour-controlled city that set up the department to say that the ratepayers will not be taken for a ride. He owes the House a statement that when the Bill comes forward it will include provisions that will prevent the rundown of the department in the way that the Tories in Birmingham are planning.

5.38 p.m.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

I owe the House, and particularly the Leader of the House, an apology, in that I have to be away for a short period to do a radio broadcast. I hope that I shall be back in time to hear the right hon. Gentleman wind up the debate, when I have no doubt that he will accommodate the modest requests that I propose to make.

My requests flow, in a sense, from the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), but if there is to be a Division on this motion I shall vote in favour of the Adjournment. I shall do so particularly out of regard for the Leader of the House. He needs a rest. He is not himself. One had only to witness his extraordinary and obdurate behaviour this afternoon in respect of the proposed two-day debate on elections to the Strasbourg Assembly to realise that this long-established and hallowed lover of Parliament and libertarian had become an almost remorseless bureaucrat.

This brings me to the very centre of my point. The arrangements concluded between the Government and the Liberal Party are not altogether appropriate to the House. This is where I agree with the hon. Member for Perry Barr. I believe that the way in which this House is permitted to question the proceedings of the joint consultative committee is wholly unsatisfactory. As far as I can gather, the framework is established in an Answer given on 28th March by the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West (Mr. Grylls). The right hon. Gentleman said this: As these matters"— these were queries about the working of the arrangement between the Government and the Liberal Party— concern inter-party relations, I do not intend to report on them to the House."—[Official Report, 28th March 1977; Vol. 929, c. 34.] On 29th March the Prime Minister said this: I do not propose to assume ministerial responsibility for these inter-party arrangements."—[Official Report, 29th March 1977; Vol. 929, c. 249.] This is wholly unsatisfactory, exactly as was underlined by the speech of the hon. Member for Perry Barr. I have no desire to pull aside the curtain and be a sort of political Peeping Tom to look in on these arrangements because, as far as I can see, Liberal Members, apart from being absentee landlords in the best Anglo-Irish ascendancy tradition, are also the political streakers of our time and they run hither and thither in such a fashion as to make any attitudes of a Peeping Tom wholly redundant.

However, the proprieties of the House should be served. I believe that the proprieties of the House require that we should know what are the formal arrangements being made and what are the Government's reactions to those formal representations.

I will take just two modest incidents. The first concerns the fate of Mr. Philip Agee and Mr. Mark Hosenball. I had a letter from the Oswestry Division Liberal Association saying: We the Executive Committee of the Oswestry Division Liberal Association deplore the methods being used to secure the deportation of Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball. There was a further comment.

I forwarded the letter to the Home Office, which replied at length, but there was no doubt that it was, broadly speaking, a lemon-shaped answer, which I then sent to the Oswestry Division Liberal Association saying: I note that Mr. Peter Hain hopes that the present understanding between the Parliamentary Liberal Party and the Government might lead to a reconsideration by the Home Office of their policy towards Mr. Hosenball and Mr. Agee. If it is your wish that I should raise the matter further with the Home Office in the light of Mr. Hain's comments, perhaps you will kindly let me know. I have not yet had a reply from the Oswestry Division Liberal Association about that issue of civil liberties.

I dare say that if the Leader of the House were sitting below the Gangway he would be second to none in his championing of civil liberties. On an issue of this significance the House is entitled to know, and it is entitled to have the machinery which will enable it to know, what are the representations from the Liberal Party.

I take another point, and I make it as topical as I can. I draw it—I am delighted to have to say it in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills)—from the "Farming Today" programme of this morning. Just awake, I was suddenly riveted by the news that the Liberal Party had been talking to the Devon branch of the National Farmers' Union.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

Ha, ha.

Mr. Biffen

I had hoped that the members of the Liberal Party would have been in their place this afternoon to follow up the commitment which they gave to the Devon branch of the National Farmers' Union.

Mr. Peter Mills

I shall do that.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend says that he intends to do that. So negligent are Liberal Members of the opportunities of Parliament that they have deserted their place.

I understand from the radio that the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and the hon. Members for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) and for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) are committed to a policy of securing a devaluation of the green pound by a full 5 per cent. This is a most extraordinary commitment. If that is what is being proffered by their spokesmen on consumer and prices affairs, these are all legitimate areas where Parliament must know what are the pressures, and what are the influences. Our information must not be from the hon. Member for Cornwall, North. I choose him as the man most likely to go on the radio or to write in the newspapers or in some way or other to give his version of what has proceeded in the joint consultative committee.

I have never been a great devotee of open government as advocated by the Secretary of State for Energy, but I have certainly been a devotee of the principle that this House should maintain as far as possible control over its procedures in a way which makes the Executive answerable to the House.

I have never enjoyed the situation in which deals were done with the CBI or with the TUC or any other extra-parliamentary corporate interest which diminished the authority of the Floor of the House. To an even greater extent do I deplore arrangements concluded within the House which are not open to the scrutiny and the investigation which I believe will be increasingly desired in all quarters of the House. For when the tail of 13 such indifferent joints as this wags the dog, Parliament has every right to be fully informed.

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

I shall certainly answer the points the hon. Gentleman has raised when I reply at the end of the debate. It would greatly help the House if the hon. Gentleman would tell us about his own attitude to devaluation of the green pound and whether his attitude was shared by his Front Bench when he was still on it.

Mr. Biffen

I shall be very happy to do so when the parliamentary occasion arises. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has ever been left in any doubts about my views on the workings of the common agricultural policy.

5.47 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

That was all jolly good stuff, but I am afraid that I must change the subject to something more serious.

There is in my constituency a hospital—St. Mark's—which has a national, and indeed an international, reputation as a centre of excellence and experience in the treatment of bowel cancer and other diseases and faults of the bowel. It is a small hospital with a long history and it is only in recent decades that it has particularly specialised in this field. It is known to specialists throughout the world and it is the place to which many people are sent from all over the world on reference from other hospitals—even teaching hospitals—in this sector of medicine.

Although St. Mark's is only a small hospital of about 90 beds, it was instructed last November by the district medical team to close 40 of those 90 beds at five weeks' notice. That decision was changed later and only one ward of 14 beds was closed. However, that is a very large part of the facilities of a hospital as small as St. Mark's.

I took the line at that time, and made my position very clear to the Minister, who is ultimately legally responsible, because he can give instructions to all health authorities, that I was not prepared to have any hospital in my constituency treated in that manner. It may be necessary for wards to be closed. Obviously it often is necessary. We cannot freeze the hospital structure as it is at any one time. However, It can never be justified in the case of any hospital, and certainly not in the the case of a cancer research hospital, for it to be instructed at five weeks' notice to close a ward, with at that time the strong likelihood that the ward would be reopened on 1st April this year, the closure having resulted in the saving of only £18,000. There was before that fiat of last November no consultation with the staff of the hospital as to the means by which savings could be achieved in other ways than by the closing of the beds. I stress that it is to the manner of the decision and not necessarily to the fact of the decision that I take exception.

Arrangements were made for the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security, to visit the hospital in February, I think, and every encouragement was then given to believe that the ward could be reopened on 1st April on thereabouts—that is, when the money for the new year started to become available. That is the daft way in which we run things.

A recent letter to the hospital has stated that although the district medical team intends that the ward should be reopened in the course of this financial year, no date can be given for the reopening, because it will depend on a number of factors, which means that we have no idea when the ward will be opened. This means that the waiting list, particularly for women patients, is severely affected.

I gave the warning last December that this was not to happen to a hospital in my area—that this sort of last minute ordering about of medical staff as to what they would be able to do must not be repeated. Despite that, and despite the visit by the Minister, in effect the same thing has happened again, with an order that the ward will not be reopened until some vague time in the future. No case for and against, so that we could "second guess" the judgment, if that is the word, of the health authorities, was put up to the Minister, and none was put to me. Such case as has now been given to me at my request—it was not volunteered to me—is perfunctory to say the least.

Let me illustrate the confusion by reference to the supposed costs of the closure. In January, the closure of the ward was said in a Parliamentary Answer formally in Hansard to be likely to save £18,000 for the three months. However, in the latest letter from the Minister—the facts in which are based upon information supplied to him, presumably, by the health authorities—the figure given is £50,000 to £60,000. Within 48 hours of my inquiries being made, that figure had been chopped down to £10,000. This is no way to run anything, far less a hospital, and far less one dealing with cancer. As far as I am concerned, that ward will be reopened immediately.

I would not normally seek by parliamentary judo to substitute my judgment for the judgment of the health authorities—all three tiers of them, plus the Ministry—which Parliament itself has set up to take these decisions. But where the manner in which the decisions have been taken is so clearly at fault, after a clear and very strongly worded warning has been given to the Minister, and known to the health authorities, I am prepared to use parliamentary judo.

These, therefore, will be the arrangements. As the Lord President probably noticed, yesterday afternoon I used two minutes of the House's time by not letting the motion to refer a Statutory Instrument go through without the two minutes which even one Member can require to be spent on that matter. I could, of course, have done the same sort of thing on Monday night on all the Budget resolutions, but, being a very understanding person, I did not do that, because I thought that it would probably harm my cause more than it would help it.

There are, however, many occasions, as the Lord President knows better than anybody, in parliamentary procedure when even one Member can wreak havoc. In that connection he will recall, as I always recall, the words of Horatius when pointing across the bridge from Rome to the narrow path. He said, as might be said about the parliamentary procedure, that In yon straight path a thousand might yet be held by three. About 20 or 30 Members of this House have received already from their constituents letters protesting about what has happened at St. Mark's. Therefore I invite the Lord President to think what might happen if 20 or 30 Members were trying to hold the narrow way.

This, therefore, is the arrangement. So far as I personally am concerned, if it is announced or communicated to me—I need not go public on it—that the ward will be reopened during April, I shall lift my sanctions as soon as I am so told. If the ward is to be reopened only in May, I shall lift my sanctions when it is reopened. If it is reopened only in June, I shall lift my sanctions one week after the ward is reopened. If it is in July, it will be two weeks after the ward is reopened. If it is in August, it will be three weeks, and so on, and such sanctions as cannot be applied before the recess will be carried forward to the period after the recess.

I stress again that I would not normally indulge in this kind of thing in order to substitute a judgment for those who are appointed to take that judgment, but it is very clear from the history of this case that the judgment has not been made against a proper assessment of the facts and with proper regard to the fact that the Minister had taken an interest in this case. The health authority has put two fingers up to him, as it has to me, and that is not to be done with impunity.

Let me close by quoting the deathless words of the district administrator of the health authority concerned. Standing two feet away from the responsible Minister, he said: St. Mark's must take its share of the misery. I am glad to say that the Minister informed the district administrator that that was not the principle on which a hospital service should be run. So far as I am concerned, any think I can do in this House to ensure that better principles are applied in future, I shall do.

5.57 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I wish to raise a point similar to that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Basing-stoke (Mr. Mitchell). I do not believe that it would be right for the House to rise for the Easter Recess without the clearest assurance from the Lord President that the Government will take action to remove some of the most objectionable features of the issue of the 714 certificate.

I sometimes think that when we pass legislation in this House we are obsessed by the minutiae of drafting and do not actually understand how the legislation which we enact will operate on the lives of the men and women whom we represent.

In order to try to make the position plain to the Lord President—and, I hope, through him to the Government—I want to take a specific case of "an ordinary working man in my constituency", to quote the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has been grievously injured by the ministration of Schedule 12 of the Finance (No. 2) Act 1975.

That Act provides that nobody shall be issued with a 714 certificate unless he has throughout the period of three years ending with the date of his application … been employed in the United Kingdom as the holder of an office or employment or as a person carrying on a trade, profession or vocation. On 15th January last, Mr. R. P. Knight, who lives in a council house at 73 Sorrel Drive in my constituency, applied for a 714 certificate. Ten weeks later he received a letter, dated 28th March, from the inspector of taxes. That letter read in part as follows: It is a requirement of the Finance (No. 2) Act 1975 that the applicant must have been employed or self-employed throughout the three-year period preceding application. Here comes the sentence that I want to underline: As you were unemployed for the 26 weeks in 1974–75, this requirement is not met. Therefore, because Mr. Knight had the misfortune to be unemployed in the year ended 5th April 1975 for 26 weeks, there has to be heaped upon him, by the specific action of the Finance (No. 2) Act 1975, a further misfortune. If there were some degree of culpability in the action of this man being unemployed, I could certainly understand that there might be—

Mr. Ridley


Mr. Gow

I could understand it. But since his unemployment was involuntary, it is inexcusable to visit this further misfortune upon him simply because he was unemployed two years ago.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will tell the House that it is no part of the policy of the Government that because a man has been unemployed he is therefore to be penalised in this way. After all, if the underlying trend in unemployment continues, there will be precious few applicants for 714 certificates who have not been unemployed in the three years before application is made.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, when replying to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) on 9th February, told us that the Inland Revenue would interpret Schedule 12 of the Act with humanity, compassion, understanding and sympathy. That is certainly not what is happening in the case of my constituent and this inspector of taxes. I make it plain that no criticism is intended of the officers who administer the instructions, which come from the Treasury. My criticism is directed solely at the inhumanity and lack of understanding by Ministers—in particular, by Ministers at the Treasury.

The second reason for my belief that we should not adjourn for the Easter Recess is that we should have a statement from the right hon. Gentleman about the consultative committee which the Prime Minister announced on 23rd March.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

Do not waste our time.

Mr. Gow

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say "do not waste time", but this is a legitimate area of public and parliamentary interest. If it was not intended to be a matter of parliamentary interest, why did the Prime Minister make his announcement in the House? He told us on 23rd March that he was setting up a consultative committee under the chairmanship of the Leader of the House. That announcement having been made in Parliament, we have been told by the Leader of the House and by the Prime Minister that no kind of answers will be given to us about the membership of the committee, about the number of occasions on which it meets, about the representations which are made by the Government's representatives, and about the representations which are made by the Liberal representatives.

It would be interesting to know, for example, which of the Liberal Members of Parliament are excluded from the committee. Again, are there representatives from another place on the Committee? I hope that the Leader of the House will let us into the confidence of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet as to how the arrangement is working.

It lies ill on the lips of hon. Members below the Gangway opposite to complain when we seek to interrogate the Government about this matter. It is clear that these consultative procedures offered by the Government to the 13 Liberal Members—whom we shall not see in the next Parliament—are a prerogative and privilege denied to hon. Members below the Gangway opposite. Indeed, these new consultative procedures are a constitutional innovation of great importance. That is proved by the fact that the Prime Minister chose to make his announcement during a very important debate in this House two weeks ago today.

Mr. David Mitchell

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that there should also be a consultative committee for the Tribune Group? If so, I would find it difficult to follow his logic.

Mr. Gow

I would find it difficult to object to the Prime Minister consulting the Tribune Group officially. It would be salutary if he did so. It would be salutary if he were to meet the Tribune Group in the presence of Liberal representatives, It is a matter of legitimate interest to this House as to how this constitutional innovation is working. It is unworthy of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House to shelter behind the procedures of Parliamentary Questions and effectively to put a stop on Questions being tabled on this subject.

It would be much better—and I think that the Leader of the House will find it so—if he were to take off the stop on Parliamentary Questions, reply frankly and openly about these new consultative procedures, and allow us all to have the doubtful pleasure of learning what goes on in this extraordinary consultative committee of which he, of all people, has been appointed chairman.

6.7 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

I intend to raise a matter that actually has to do with the motion and the business beyond Easter, and I do not intend to make reference to what others have been saying, because I take a rather strict view of the opportunities arising from these debates, which are provided for an important and strict constitutional purpose.

In passing, however, I will say that if there is one thing certain, within the confines of this House and throughout the country, it is that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House needs no lesson from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) on the question where he ought to shelter or put his political courage. Anyone who hears the hon. Gentlemen urging my right hon. Friend to have political courage will find his urgings laughable and ridiculous. If there is one quality that has been shown by my right hon. Friend throughout his political life it is his political courage—indeed, it is the most important quality of all.

Mr. Ridley rose

Mr. Mendelson

I have no intention of giving way. I want to raise a point that is very important to those who value the tradition of bringing the views of the country into these Adjournment debates. After all, we are being asked to make the important decision that the House of Commons should not be sitting, and that cannot be done, as everyone knows, without the approval of its Members. The people must be given a good reason why we have agreed to such a motion.

For example, I shall be speaking at a meeting in Penistone later this week, and one of the things that I shall have to report upon is the reason for my agreeing to the Adjournment of the House for Easter. I shall have to explain whether there were not any compelling reasons why it might have been better not to agree to the motion.

The point that I have in mind is the business foreshadowed today for the return of the House after Easter, as that business will be of great importance to the people. Moreover, it is business that the people ought to have time to consider. I refer, of course, to the arrangements for the debate on possible direct elections to the European Parliament, the Common Market Assembly. This is a matter of great constitutional importance to our constituents, because, after all, an election is not only for Members of Parliament: it is primarily for the constituents, for the citizens, for the electorate. What more directly involves their interest and concern than the proposition that a new election should be held and that a new electoral system is possibly to be introduced? I would have thought that, so soon after the publication of the White Paper, the country ought to be given time to consider what is in it.

The professional politicians assembled in this House know from experience that we cannot expect, as soon as the White Paper is published, every citizen, every miner, farmer and doctor, to run to the Stationery Office and before doing anything else obtain a copy of the White Paper on direct elections. I leave out the delays that occur with regard to Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Even those people who do rush along at noon on the day of publication are not always in a position to obtain the document they seek. There are limited editions, and they are soon sold out. People then have to wait another six days before the second batch arrives.

It is wholly unjustifiable not to allow a decent and reasonable interval for the country to take cognisance of what is in this important State paper. It may be argued that it is a White Paper with green edges, but that is not easily accepted by our constituents. A White Paper is a White Paper, and people must have a serious opportunity of studying it.

We know that public life is carried forward not only by individuals on their own. Britain has a multi-party system, a free and open society and one in which many associations meet from time to time. Would it not be reasonable to give those associations the opportunity of considering the White Paper if they wish to do so? Most of these organisations meet once every four weeks, or at some such reasonable time. I would not expect that statement to be contradicted. Most of the organisations to which we belong, or with which we have contact, meet at four-weekly intervals. Some of them meet less frequently, because of the geography of constituency associations, for instance. My constituency covers 143 square miles and it is often not possible to hold meetings in every part of the area, even within a period of four weeks. Other right hon. and hon. Members must be in the same position. I leave out some of the largest constituencies in the north of Scotland.

That being the case, there must be very compelling reasons of overriding importance to the crucial and day to day in-interests of the citizens of this country before we can say "There is no time". A debate is to take place almost immediately after the House returns from the Easter Recess, but who can advance any such compelling reasons? Who can seriously suggest that it is important for a major debate on the White Paper, only just published, to be held in the first week after we return? Any hon. Member would only make himself ridiculous if he were to advance such an argument. Moreover, as has been shown by the many voices on all sides of the House of Commons, there is broad agreement that the debate should not take place in the first week but should be postponed to the second week, at the earliest. This view was clearly expressed earlier today.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

My hon. Friend might also note that the European Parliament—from the members of which one should take a small amount of advice—will be meeting during that week and, therefore, will not be able to take part in the debate in the first week immediately after the recess.

Mr. Mendelson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of that important point. It brings in a significant additional reason. There is also an important constitutional opportunity, which ought to be provided to hon. Members of this House. The Leader of the House is not unfamiliar with it. We have sometimes co-operated with my right hon. Friend, and he knows that I am not normally given to reminding him of his past. It is an honourable past, and he does not need these reminders. I merely make the point to underline what has been common ground between us, that one of the major purposes of the great institution of Parliament is to try to influence the Executive, the Cabinet, not after it has finally made up its mind and brought a decision to Parliament from which it does not want to move, but in the process when it is beginning to make up its mind.

I hope that it will be possible for Government supporters to get together as soon as possible after Parliament reassembles. I hope that before then they will get in contact with their supporters in the country. It is obviously no use hon. Members getting together during the recess, before the House reassembles and before they have had time to contact their supporters in the country. But having had the benefit of that contact they should when they return seek to get together and influence the Government's mind.

Let us assume that they get together on the Wednesday morning and that their meeting finishes at 1 o'clock. At 3.30 on the same afternoon a senior member of the Executive—I do not know who it will be and at this stage it is not necessary for me to know—will stand at the Dispatch Box and give the Government's point of view. No one in his good sense can assume that in the two and a half hours over lunch the Cabinet will have been influenced by what it heard at the meeting between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the same day. The senior Minister's speech will obviously have been written and prepared beforehand, and I would not wish it otherwise. It would be irresponsible not to prepare the speech carefully for such a major occasion.

If there is to be any hope or opportunity of Members of Parliament having any influence at all on the Executive there surely needs to be an interval between their meeting and the opening of the debate. Enough said. I do not want to labour the point. [Interruption.] I am addressing myself to the House of Commons and not to those hon. Members who are not in the habit of getting together for such democratic consultations but who merely say what they think is politically advantageous to them. The whole agitation surrounding this subject—I have just been reminded by their intervention—has been dominated by the way in which they irresponsibly arrogate to themselves the knowledge and wisdom of the people and what they want with regard to direct elections, without having collected any evidence whatever about how people feel. They are so cocksure about it. We are not so sure, and we want to consult our supporters on these matters.

The Government, the House and the country would lose nothing if the debate were held in the second week. Many hon. Members have expressed support for that action. Since nothing would be lost and since we are not in the middle of a great national crisis, the debate should be held in the second week. That would enable pepole to prepare for two consecutive days' debate, and the country would take more interest. The country is seldom aware of what we are doing, and it would be even less aware if we started a debate on Wednesday, did nothing about it during the next two days and resumed it on Monday. There should be time for reflection and consultation.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

In view of the exchanges during business questions today, to which my hon. Friend has referred, does he not agree that if the Government still proceed with their plan, it may cause a procedural problem from which the Government may never be able to free themselves?

Mr. Mendelson

My hon. Friend's argument is justifiable. It is right to have it on record that he and other hon. Members believe that there should be room for reflection. However, even if the decision were not changed, I would not necessarily come to my hon. Friend's conclusion. Sometimes matters are simpler than they appear to be.

What probably happened was that after useful consultations with the Opposition the impression was formed that the debate should be held at a particular time. The Leader of the House and Govern- ment representatives, who are responsible for the business, have come to the conclusion, in good faith, that they would please and satisfy most hon. Members by taking the decision that they have taken.

New evidence has been produced in the House today by hon. Members speaking for themselves. The Government should reconsider their decision by responding to the mood of the House and announcing that the debate will take place not on Wednesday and Monday of the first week but on Monday and Tuesday of the second week.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

There was one remark in the speech of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) with which I agreed whole-heartedly. He mentioned the great political courage of the Leader of the House. I agree with him. I could not possibly sit on the Treasury Bench—

Mrs. Dunwoody

We know that.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Gentleman once sat on the Front Bench, but he was sacked.

Mr. Ridley

After the Stechford by-election, for the Leader of the House and his right hon. Friends to continue in office is great political courage—if that is the polite way of putting it. He reminds me more each day of his friend Mrs. Gandhi as he approaches the election that inevitably will finish him off. The only difference is that instead of trying to sterilise the Indian population the Leader of the House is sterilising the Liberal-only subcontractors.

Have the Liberals ever suggested that the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act—which has not yet been brought into force, although it is through the House—should be abandoned? The Liberals voted against it throughout its passage, during three stormy years. Have they accepted it? I should also like to know whether the Liberals have accepted the Dock Work Regulation Act, which has not yet come into force. The Liberals voted against it throughout all its stages. Have they suggested in the consultative committee that those bits of legislation should not be brought into force? We were told by the Leader of the Liberal Party that there would be no more Socialism in our time. The way of achieving that objective would be for the Liberals to force the Government, as one condition for their support, to drop those pieces of legislation.

Perhaps an arrangement can be worked out whereby we can question the Leader of the House about these matters, or even question the Liberals as I suggested the other day, about what they want. It would be helpful to know.

The Liberals also voted against the implementation of the 714 certificates. I was grateful to my hon. Friends for their support during the Supply Day debate on that topic. I wonder whether one of the conditions of the Leader of the Liberal Party was that there should be at least a moratorium, if not an abandonment, of the proposal to drive small sub-contractors out of business by refusing them certificates.

There is now total administrative chaos in the operation of the scheme. The certificate comes into force today. If a sub-contractor does not have his certificate, he has to be paid net, less 35 per cent. from today. Therefore, this is a suitable day for the House to consider whether it should adjourn for Easter before something is done about that. We are told that no decision has been given to 25,000 people and that 12,000 people have been told that they can have a certificate eventually but that they cannot have one now, because, for some reason, the certificate manufacturing process is well behindhand. This Government are good at manufacturing certificates. It is surprising that of all the bureaucratic activities of the Government the most fruitful should be the manufacture of certificates. Yet it is on that that they have fallen down.

The certificate comprises a piece of cardboard with a photograph. It must be made in Swansea, which has not got a good reputation for bureaucracy.

Mr. Gow

Perhaps it has been subcontracted to Ebbw Vale.

Mr. Ridley

Perhaps that is the explanation.

Recently, I wrote to the Financial Secretary about one of my constituents, Mr. E. Southern of 8 Ley Orchard, Willersey, Broadway, Worcestershire. The Financial Secretary replied: I am very sorry for the delay in preparing the certificate. The Inland Revenue have asked me to pass on their apologies to both Mr. Southern and yourself, and to say that the trouble was caused by a slip-up in one of their local offices. You will be pleased however, to have it confirmed that the application has been successful and that the Inspector of Taxes has written to Mr. Southern to tell him so. Apart from its being a little hard to take away a man's living because of a slip-up, there is a more serious aspect. Mr. Southern has had that letter confirmed by an Inland Revenue Press release dated 16th March. It reads: The Inland Revenue will not take action against any contractor (including a local authority) who, until he has had evidence of the certificate itself, treats such a letter as evidence of certification and, accordingly, makes payment gross to the sub-contractor concerned. That is illegal. I shall quote not from the schedule of the Act but from the Inland Revenue leaflet on the tax deduction scheme. It says that the contractor must, before paying gross, check that the certificate is a genuine one issued by the Inland Revenue—an example is shown on the Contractor's Checking Guide, a copy of which is at Appendix G…. If the contractor is satisfied, as a result of these checks, that the sub-contractor is the authorised holder of a valid certificate, he must make the payment without deduction. If he is not satisfied, he must make the deduction". So heavy penalties are imposed on a contractor who pays gross when the subcontractor does not have the actual certificate. He is inviting heavy penalties, yet the Inland Revenue is here advising him to accept a mere letter, without even a photograph or a cardboard certificate to identify whether the sub-contractor is genuine.

Here, the Government, through the Inland Revenue, are urging citizens to break the law. This is one of the most appalling administrative muddles that we have ever witnessed. It makes the child benefit scheme, which, heaven knows, was bad enough, look like a tea party. Are we to have an announcement today, on the day that the scheme is introduced? Will the Government think again, knowing that 37,000 sub-contractors are still without certificates? Will they decide not to bring in the scheme, now that the Inland Revenue is circulating subcontractors and asking them to break the law? Will the Government have second thoughts?

My final point of substance is still unmet. In the words of the Financial Secretary, the main reason why these certificates are not being issued is that in the opinion of the tax inspectors some contractors are not—and I quote—"good taxpayers". This new crime of not being a good taxpayer must not be used in future to take away people's living.

I have a secret to impart to the House. I do not think that I am a good taxpayer myself. I try to avoid paying my taxes until the last due day arrives. I am sure that I would not be given a 714 certificate on those grounds alone. I am delighted to see the Treasury Minister here. I hope that he, too, is a good taxpayer—that he always pays his taxes as soon as he possibly can and never waits until the last moment, so that he has never caused himself to get on the black list of an inspector.

This new crime of not being a good taxpayer, which may well properly fall to be dealt with by stiffer penalties and heavier fines on those who are late or avoid paying their taxes, should not be dealt with by taking away the right to earn one's living. It is a fundamental point of social justice and human rights, which the Lord President, with all his great political courage, would do well to meet, as his last service before we rise, and before the present House disappears.

I am against the motion, because I think that we should go away tomorrow and never come back. A new House of Commons should come back—a House that is representative of the people, because the present House is not representative of the people. Before that happens, the Lord President could retrieve the whole of his reputation as a democrat and someone who respects human rights if he said this afternoon that the Government have decided to do something about this scandal.

6.34 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I have been in the House for many years, and I do not think that there has been a time when there have been so many points that I wished to raise in a debate, because there are many matters that ought to be discussed, both national matters and those affecting my own constituency. However, I shall not bore the House by going through the whole of my list, which would be very long.

I wish to raise two points, the first on behalf of British agriculture. Today in agriculture we find ourselves in the unhappy position of having no decision reported to us by the Minister on the price review determinations in Brussels. Reference has been made to the Liberals and the deputation that came from the West Country first to the Liberals and then to the West Country Conservative Members. It is really amazing that the Liberals have the cheek to puff themselves up into such a position as to say that they will negotiate with the Government so that these things can be determined, and that they will let my farming friends in the West Country know in due course, yet on the first occasion when they could raise this matter in the House and call for a statement and for a debate, I cannot see a single Liberal Member in the House.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

My hon. Friend may wish to know that when I went into the Lobby recently I saw two members of the Liberal Party from the other place and two from this House wandering through, perhaps coming from some pre-conclave meeting before dictating their terms to the Lord President.

Mr. Mills

That is very interesting, but I always understood that a constituency Member should raise these matters on the Floor of the House. That is what I seek to do.

The farmers and farm workers of the West Country, when the time comes, will have rumbled the hollowness of the Liberal Party in these matters. I am asking the Leader of the House for a statement from the Ministry of Agriculture. Delays in this determination do not help British agriculture. Confidence needs to be restored. These figures are alarming. It appears that production will have dropped by 10 per cent. this year. This is of no benefit to consumers in this country, let alone the farming community.

The consumer needs home production, and that means that the Government have to agree in Brussels to determine price levels for the coming year. Nature does not wait for Brussels. Planting, sowing and tilling go on apace. Farmers want to know where they are. The Minister has done a grave disservice to British agriculture by not coming to some agreement with the Community. Obviously, we should like a debate, but that is not possible, so we must have a statement from the Minister of Agriculture on this matter.

Another month's delay—because that is what it will mean—is totally unfair on those who are seeking to produce food that this country needs. We cannot go on relying on ever-increasing imports of food. It is a myth to suggest that we can buy cheaper elsewhere. We can certainly buy small parcels and small lots elsewhere, but we need to rely on home production, and the Government, by their failure to come to a decision on this matter, have undermined the confidence of British agriculture.

We need action on the green pound. I am willing to state my own position on this matter. I believe that we need to take two steps in the transitional period and that we need a small devaluation in the green pound of perhaps 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. That would help to restore the confidence that is needed. There does not need to be a general increase in prices throughout the Community. British agriculture could come up towards parity by the steps that I have outlined.

The Minister says that he is fighting for the consumers. It is a very strange way of fighting, when he is upsetting the home producers on whom this country relies so much. I hope that we shall have a statement from the Minister of Agriculture before the House rises.

Lastly, we need a statement from the Home Office on the very serious position at Dartmoor Prison, in my constituency. There is a great deal of anger about the accommodation there. The prison officers reported to me yesterday that they had rejected the Home Secretary's offer to improve their homes. They say that that is not good enough, and I agree with them. I understand that industrial action will continue to be taken. That is why we need an urgent statement from the Home Secretary on this important and potentially dangerous matter.

Dartmoor is a special case, because of its climate. Anyone who has lived up there knows what it is like. While the Leader of the House and the Home Secretary are snug and warm in their homes over Easter, and while the prisoners in the prison are snug and warm in their accommodation, the men who look after them will be living in Cornish unit houses which are draughty and damp. It is a scandal that these men should be treated in this way. I hold no brief for the industrial action, but I can understand why these men are taking it. Therefore, we want to hear from the Home Office that it is intended to improve this accommodation.

I apologise to the Leader of the House, since I have another engagement at 7 o'clock and I shall be unable to be here for his answers. I urge him, however, to pass on my remarks to the Minister of Agriculture and the Home Secretary.

6.42 p.m.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am delighted that the Lord President has at last given us a debate on sport and recreation, and I shall, therefore, not waste the time for that debate by speaking for more than a couple of minutes in this debate.

It would be wrong for hon. Members to go away for Easter without supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Devon West (Mr. Mills) in his complaint about the treatment of agriculture in recent months. It is iniquitous that we should be going away without a conclusion having been reached on the Brussels price review.

The Lord President should give some encouragement to pig producers who are suffering more than any other branch of farming. The 50p per score subsidy has long since been absorbed, and pig farmers are losing substantial sums of money every week. In the interests of the long-term production of food we need a statement by the Minister as soon as possible about the price review, pigs and the adjustment of the mca, which is in the long-term interests of the housewife. There is anger and resentment among the farming community in my constituency, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give a firm indication that the Minister of Agriculture will make a statement to allay these fears.

6.43 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

If the Leader of the House were to decide to bring the House back immediately after Easter I should be prepared to speak for a day and a half on the subject that matters most to me but appears not to matter to the Labour movement—the value of child benefit.

In a Written Answer yesterday the Government indicated that child benefit and the tax allowance for the second child needed to be increased by 13 per cent. to cover the movement in prices since last April. There is no proposal in the Budget for this to be taken into account. There is no plan, as a result of the Government's discussions with union leaders, to take account of any pay settlement or of the effect of inflation on the costs of bringing up children.

If one estimates that inflation will run at 13 per cent. in the next 12 months one sees that the effective devaluation of child benefit would be 25 per cent. That would be a remarkable achievement by the Government, especially since they do not bother to discuss it with those to whom it matters most—the working people of the country.

We hear Clive Jenkins talking about 34 per cent. pay claims for some of his members. I do not doubt that many of them deserve that amount; most of us deserve higher pay. But what about the 14 million people who look after 14 million children? The Government have allowed the pay of those people to fall by 25 per cent. over two years, and have not paid much attention to it. That seems the sort of scandal that is worth bringing the House back early to discuss.

I may be told that the TUC will be taking this matter up in the same way as it takes up the problems of unemployment and pensions. If the TUC is to take up all the problems that affect everyone in the country we might as well invite it to come here and arrange for the Government to meet in Congress House.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Francis Pym (Cambridgeshire)

The Leader of the House has a lot to answer for, and I hope that he makes a good job of answering. If there were any risk of the House not passing this motion it would be sad, since the right hon. Gentleman would be denied a recess, and he needs a recess more than anyone else needs it. He has had a very rough term.

When he was announcing the businesss this afternoon he said, against the wishes of some hon. Members, that it would be wrong to have two days of debate on direct elections in one week. He decided to split the debate by four or five days. A couple of months ago, when he was in more robust order, in replying to an amendment on the Scotland and Wales Bill, he said that he did not believe that our political system held that wisdom lay in the middle. I think that he has changed his mind about that and that today he finds that it does.

The right hon. Gentleman returned after the last recess full of hope and ebullience, but since then has suffered a series of accidents and misfortunes—although I would not regard them as misfortunes. He has lost a series of Divisions and the Government have lost a series of by-elections. They have lost the main Bill in their legislative programme and they are able still to be here as a minority Government only by adopting an artificial limb, which seems to be somewhat unreliable and which has been completely invisible all this afternoon.

The Government depend upon the votes of the Liberal Party in order to survive. Without those votes the right hon. Gentleman would not be on the Government Front Bench. My hon. Friends were quite right to raise this matter and express their dissatisfaction with ministerial responsbility under this arrangement.

The Liberal Leader, the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), made a major point about the agreement being a public agreement, which had to be written down so that everyone could study it and understand it. We have heard nothing more about it, however, than we heard in the debate on the motion of censure, and that is an unsatisfactory arrangement.

It is extraordinary that the Government should rely on the Liberals and that the Liberals should put their faith in the Government and appear to be part of the Government, but should be determined to stay on the Opposition side of the House. They should explain that point more satisfactorily than they have.

The Liberals have voted against the Government already since the pact was drawn up. The occasion was the defence expenditure debate. They almost voted against the Government on the question of the petrol tax increase. They wanted to, but they were prevented from doing so. They are liable to vote against the Government on the question of the green pound. This matter is therefore entirely appropriate for hon. Members to raise, and the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) was wrong to criticise by hon. Friend from raising it. The arrangement is most unsatisfactory. The Leader of the House must know that the Government depend on this new-found alliance.

The right hon. Gentleman has been very busy in his talks with various parties and groups in the House, but I regret that he has dragged his feet over the talks on devolution. I appreciate that when the Government were challenged on the motion of censure the right hon. Gentleman had to have conversations with all the parties, particularly the Liberals. Since then he has committed himself to talks with members representing Northern Ireland. That was part of the deal that was done to try to win their support. He has numerous conversations in progress with groups in his party. I urge him, however, to leave sufficient time after the recess to progress more actively on the important questions that have arisen out of the subject of devolution. As he knows very well, it is my view that, if we are to do our job with the maximum degree of responsibility in these matters it is right that the parties should talk together and see what can be thrashed out for the future of the government of Scotland within the United Kingdom.

The Lord President has a number of matters to answer which have been raised by my hon. Friends. There is the question of the phantom committee, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), to be presided over by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson). I do not mean any offence when I say that the right hon. Gentleman is in some respects becoming something of a phantom figure himself.

There is the important question of the 714 certificates, raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mr. Mitchell) and Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), and very strongly pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). There is a serious grievance over the penalties that the people concerned suffer and the obstacles that have been put in their way. They are being singled out for specially harsh treatment. They feel—we have some sympathy with this view—that the Government are continuing some kind of vendetta against them, and they do not think that they are being treated in any way fairly. That is a matter that we wish to hear more about from the Leader of the House in a moment.

There was the question of agriculture, raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) and Dumfries (Mr. Monro), as well as the various points raised by Labour Members—the question of hospitals and industrial disputes and the question of the direct labour Bill particularly as it affects Birmingham. The poor ratepayers of Birmingham, according to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), seem to be suffering an unfortunate fate, because, according to him, they are being screwed by the building industry of that city. At any rate, there is a great deal of unhappiness there.

I wish to add two matters of my own. One is the Government's attitude towards Northern Ireland. The Government are lacking any sound, constructive and progressive policy for Northern Ireland. We know that they are doing their best, as they think, on the security aspect, but it appears that they are, as it were, sitting twiddling their thumbs and hoping for the best, with no constructive policy for Northern Ireland. After the terrorism and the awful events that keep occurring there, this is a subject which the House will want to return to after the recess.

I come now to a local matter affecting my own constituency. Many counties suffered a serious blow when the rate support grant was announced. My own county of Cambridgeshire suffered as heavily and severely as any. Since this local authority responded positively to the Government's earlier requests for economy and good housekeeping and it is cutting back on its spending, for it then to receive a cut infinitely greater than it had any reason to expect was to treat it in an unreasonable way which was extremely harsh on the ratepayers of the county.

I am not the only Member representing Cambridgeshire. There are three others of my hon. Friends involved. We regard it as most unfair and unreasonable treatment to be meted out.

I have some anxiety about the statements made by the Secretary of State for the Environment today and earlier this week. The implication of his statement today could be that the Government might contemplate rather severe treatment for the counties again next year. It is our intention and our purpose to try to persuade the Government to be less mealy-mouthed and less mean in their treatment of the counties. Everyone in my part of the world feels that what has been meted out to Cambridgeshire is thoroughly unreasonable and grossly unfair.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury that we ought not to come back at all. We ought to have a General Election, because there is great dissatisfaction in the country at what is happening at present. The hon. Member for Penistone must be oblivious of what people think if he will not find out until next week what people have in their minds. He seemed to be concerned about having to explain to a meeting next Wednesday why Parliament had an Easter Recess. If the people of Penistone, whom he has represented for many years now, do not know why the House has a recess, he cannot have treated them fairly or reasonably in recent times.

It is perfectly clear from the evidence collected lately that what this Government are doing by their policies, with the limping help of the invisible Liberal Party, is not what most of the British people want. It is not in any sense a successful policy, and when we come back after the recess we shall challenge the Government on it. They must come forward with solutions to rising unemployment and falling living standards. They must produce new policies which will have the effect of getting the country back to a prosperous state and improving our present unhappy economic performance.

I admit that the Government are arranging to return to the important question of elections to the European Parliament. They are losing no time on that, which is quite correct. The urgency of the debate lies in their being committed to using their best endeavours, but it seems that, but for the ending of the Scotland and Wales Bill, their best endeavours would not have been seen in any shape or form. The Scotland and Wales Bill ended, I think, six weeks ago—

Mr. John Mendelson

The right hon. Gentleman has said that one ought to be quite sure what is in the minds of one's constituents on current questions. Has he recently consulted his constituents in Cambridgeshire, which I know well, on the question of direct elections and has he such support among them for direct elections? Can he give some evidence?

Mr. Pym

I am in constant consultation with my constituents, but I should like to be able to do it better than I have been able to do in recent months. I should like to have an election to consult them properly and let them come forward with their conclusions. That is what we are asking for. The hon. Gentleman does not want an election, because he knows that he will get a dusty answer.

The subject of direct elections has been discussed for a long time. One of the Government's options in the White Paper with green edges—the compulsory dual mandate—has been destroyed already by the Lord President himself. Obviously, we cannot get through any business if there is to be constant interruption if we cannot take business here because European Members of Parliament are absent. Plainly, that system will not work. Moreover, I cannot think that the Labour Party, any more than the Conservative Party, will be enamoured of the national list system.

We shall discuss these matters, but they are not so complicated or so new as has been suggested. We could perfectly well have both the debates on the first day back, particularly if business is to be on the Adjournment. There is no reason why we cannot debate it while the European Parliament is sitting.

We shall certainly return to study the question of defence again, and we shall express our anxieties about the weakening of our defences. These are massive matters to be considered. Despite the vote the other night, we do not have confidence in the present Government or in their policies. The sooner they go with their artificial limb and the rest of it, the better, and the sooner will the country have a Conservative Government, which is what the country needs.

6.58 p.m.

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

I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) for his solicitude about my health. I shall come in the latter part of my remarks to the other major matters he raised but I thought that I should begin by thanking him for his kindness in approaching the matter in that way.

In reply to the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) perhaps I could disclose the worst-kept secret of all time. It is true that I did not vote for him at the last election. However, I assure him that that has not warped my mind in any way in the reply I shall give to his questions.

The hon. Gentleman recited a rather lengthy list of dates which have been passed in the establishment of what the right hon. Gentleman called the phantom committee on the film industry. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an absolutely definite answer now. The interim action committee to be chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) is to be appointed very soon. I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a date, but as he has already waited so long I do not think that it is a hardship to wait a little longer still. I assure him that the remarks he has made on the subject have been fully taken to heart.

The second question the hon. Member for Hampstead raised was on the operation of the rent register and the legal aspects of the matter. I agree with what he said about the "Ham and High"—the Hampstead and High gate Express—and the way in which it has brought these matters to the public. I have the highest respect for it. However, his point was answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) and I do not believe that I can be expected to alter the legal position in any sense in replying to an Adjournment debate of this character.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) raised the question of the Grunwick Laboratories which fits into the proper form of this debate. This is a matter where action is required, and it is necessary for opinions to be expressed in the House.

This dispute was made official by APEX, but the company has refused to meet the union. At the end of last year APEX referred recognition to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service but the company refused to co-operate in the ACAS inquiry. In March this year ACAS issued a report recommending recognition of APEX, and offering help in settling the problems. There has been no move so far in the implementation of that recommendation, and if it is not implemented within two months APEX can go to the Central Arbitration Committee for a binding award. The Employment Protection Act was introduced in order to assist in dealing with matters of this kind. I hope that the whole House will support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South in urging the employers to talk with ACAS.

I hope that hon. Members will also agree that ACAS has played a part in settling a multitude of disputes ever since it was established, and that it is held in the highest possible respect by employers, trade unions and everyone.

It is most deplorable that the recommendation of ACAS has not been respected by the employers, and even more deplorable that such events as those described by my hon. Friend are continuing. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government have the fullest possible sympathy with the view he has expressed, and I hope that what has been said in the House on these matters will be respected by the employers. I hope that everyone will seek to get obedience of the law in this case. We hear a lot from Conservative Members about obeying the law on other occasions, and I hope that they will urge obedience of the law in this case.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Mitchell) raised a point that was touched upon by many other hon. Members opposite. His right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire suggested that the Government were conducting a vendetta against the people affected by 714 certificates. I hope very much that he will not continue to subscribe to any such suggestion. The Government are not carrying out any vendetta. We are simply seeking to deal with what most people agreed was a general abuse. When the Conservatives sought to deal with this they were not successful and we believed that action had to be taken.

Two years' notice was given to those affected, and the relevant legislation was passed 18 months ago. The Government had to take firm action because previous schemes failed to have any proper effect in dealing with the problem. Between 1972 and 1975 the industry had the chance to operate a loosely drawn scheme without abusing it. Unfortunately, parts of the industry could not resist the temptation, and there were widespread abuses which brought the whole industry into disrepute.

By mid-March there were 294,000 applications for 714 certificates, of which 220,000 were granted and 24,000 rejected. This matter was fully debated on 9th February, and we cannot conduct a further full debate at this stage about the reasons for Government action in introducing the measure into the Finance Bill. The debate on 9th February gave another opportunity for the working of the Act to be discussed. I am not saying that there can be no further discussion on the operation of the Act, but I do not believe that anyone would expect me to give fresh pronouncements on its workings in reply to a debate of this nature.

Mr. David Mitchell

But can the Lord President answer the specific question about the implications given in a parliamentary answer that a further application, once one had been rejected, can be made afresh and considered?

Mr. Foot

I cannot comment on individual aspects of the question or on individual cases. It would not be appropriate in replying to a debate on the Easter Adjournment. I cannot go into details of that nature. After all, the purpose of the Adjournment debate is for hon. Members to give reasons why we should not depart for the recess. Certainly these matters will continue to be raised by hon. Gentlemen when the House meets again, but they do not form a good reason why the House should not adjourn for the Easter Recess.

Mr. Keith Stainton (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

I agree entirely with the spirit of what the Leader of the House has said, but would he not agree that, apart from particular details of policy or individual cases, there appears to be a prima facie case of maladministration on the part of the Inland Revenue? Would he lend his weight to a submission to the Ombudsman?

Mr. Foot

I would not accept that without much greater investigation. A charge of maladministration on the part of the Inland Revenue would need much more detailed investigation. As I have already indicated, a huge number of cases have been dealt with and have gone forward in a perfectly satisfactory manner. Those which have not been dealt with satisfactorily may have particular circumstances applying to them, and it would be wrong for me to try to pass judgment on them in reply to this debate.

On the general measure introduced by the Government, I repeat that it was introduced for very good reasons. The House recognised that the measure constituted an attempt to deal with widespread abuses. In the main it is working well. If there are anomalies and difficulties hon. Members will have the opportunity to raise them when the House meets again. That does not mean that they should oppose the motion to adjourn.

Mr. Gow

Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that the Government will look again at the anomaly whereby a period of unemployment during the three years before the moment of application for a certificate should be an element that precludes the granting of a certificate?

Mr. Foot

I would not give that answer without examing all the details involved in such a case. I cannot add to what was said by my hon. Friend who replied to the debate on 9th February. The fact that that debate took place then shows that hon. Members are perfectly able to raise the matter in different ways. If there is such a widespread and legitimate feeling that abuses exist—and I pass no judgment on that one way or the other—the hon. Member will have an opportunity of raising the matter when the House returns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) raised the question of the direct labour Bill. I fully understand his anxieties about the fact that the Bill has not been brought forward. He attributes this to what he called the "machinations" between the Government and the Liberal Party, and I will come to the more general question on that matter later. There have been no machinations. That word carries sinister implications. My hon. Friend nods his head. I expect that is why he used it. There are no machinations in this sense.

In order to get the Bill through the House of Commons, we have to get a majority. My hon. Friend will understand that fully. Therefore, it is no use our proceeding with the Bill unless we can get a majority for it. The discussions that have taken place will enable us, I believe, to be able to secure a majority for the Bill. It will not achieve all the things that many of us would wish, but we shall be able to do that a little later, when we have a fuller majority in the House, which we expect to secure after the next General Election. We shall then be able to deal with all these matters. My hon. Friend does not want to wait for some sort of Bill till then. We shall bring forward a Bill not of the further far-reaching character that we would have wished but of some character to deal with these problems at a fairly early date.

In the meantime, however, if my hon. Friend will communicate to us—I dare say that he will have done so already: he is one of the most diligent and active Members—details of the situation in Birmingham, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will certainly look into them immediately and carefully to see whether his Department can assist in dealing with the immediate problem there. My hon. Friend has told the House very fully of the kind of action being taken by Birmingham Council. It is very sad that the controlling hands into which Birmingham Council has fallen are the main cause of these problems. We cannot solve that matter. We certainly cannot solve the problem before the House departs for the Easter Recess. However, my hon. Friend can raise these matters immediately with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. He can raise the particular matters and some particular developments.

We certainly hope to bring forward the Bill at a fairly early stage in a form in which it will be able to assist the situation and to proceed fairly speedily on to the statute book.

I come now to the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. I am not forgetting the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen). I would not do that for one moment. However, I set aside some of the matters that he mentioned because they deal with other more general questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury raised the question of what happened in the hospital in his area. He put the question extremely fairly, in the sense that he said that, in a normal case, he would not seek to set his judgment against that of those who have been charged with dealing with these matters. However, what my hon. Friend was concerned about was the manner in which this has been undertaken, despite all the warnings that he had given about it. I shall certainly see that the matter is looked into afresh and that my hon. Friend has some proper communication from the Department concerned, both on the action itself and on the manner in which it has been undertaken. I do not have any fuller answer to give to my hon. Friend now, but I shall see how speedily we can get an answer to him.

Till at least my hon. Friend has the answer and can pass judgment on that. I hope that he will hold his hand on the sanctions that he was intending to apply. He shakes his head. We shall have to wait and see. However, if every Member were to apply the individual sanctions that he could apply in this House, it is true, as my hon. Friend indicates, that the whole place could be brought to a standstill. I am not saying that my hon. Friend has chosen exactly the best moment, even with his great parliamentary skill, which, I say genuinely, I respect very greatly and never underestimate. Any Minister who underrated my hon. Friend's capacity to throw a spanner in the works would be very foolish. I am not, therefore, under rating his challenge at all, but he cannot do all that much between now and the passage of the motion before us. I hope that by the time the House meets again we shall have softened his ire and helped to cure the grievance that he has properly raised on behalf of his constituents. I hope that the House will then be able to proceed without the obstacle race that I know that my hon. Friend can present to the House when it is carrying through other matters.

I shall be coming to the Liberals. There are one or two other hon. Members who wanted to raise certain matters. Perhaps I may turn first to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson). He raised a matter that it was absolutely legitimate to raise at this stage and a matter touching a question of absolute first importance for the country and the House of Commons. I do not deny that for a moment. I also think that it is quite right that the House of Commons should have a chance of expressing its view on the matter in general terms before the Government come to final decisions. That is the most essential claim that my hon. Friend is making.

Of course, the timings of the debates that I have suggested take that fully into account. There will be no decision by the Government or by the Cabinet—beyond those already sketched out in the White Paper—prior to the secret discussions to which my hon. Friend referred and prior to the debate in the House. My hon. Friend elaborated, with his customary skill, fear about the difficulties that the House would be in on the Wednesday when we return, a statement having to be made here by the Minister and everything then having to be decided very rapidly between the conclusion of our secret meetings elsewhere and the beginning of our discussions here. I do not believe that this is the state of affairs with which we shall be confronted.

I think that what will happen is that there will be discussions in the different parties and there will be the general discussion in the House of the White Paper, in which various different choices have been set out and described, and at the end of that debate the Government and the country will have full opportunity of being able to see what has been said in the House.

It cannot be said that the matter has been rushed to such a degree that the debate will not be successful. Indeed, most of the pressure that has come from other sections of the House over recent months has been to say that we should have dealt with this matter a long time ago. That has been the view of the official Opposition in some respects. However, most of those who have now had a chance of looking at the White Paper will see that it raises—not because of the Government's attitude but because of the inherent problem involved—very important, far-reaching constitutional questions.

We must have the chance to discuss them fully and freely in the House. I certainly accept that. However, in arranging the business for the week when we return and the subsequent week we were confronted with some difficulties. I do not propose to trespass on the normal practices in any sense, I trust, but discussions take place prior to debates here.

There are sections of the House that would have wished to have the whole of this debate in the first week. They are perfectly entitled to hold that view. If that were to occur, one of the difficulties would be that this two-day debate would have clashed entirely with the debate taking place on the Assembly in Europe. I think that that was a legitimate reason for saying that we should seek to postpone at any rate part of the debate till a later period. My hon. Friend says "Why not postpone the whole of it to a later date?" If we had done that we would have clashed with another section of Members who would be absent at the later time. Moreover, it would completely disregard the opinion that has been put forward in other parts of the House that we should have the debate in the first week. Therefore, we had to balance the two considerations.

It is true that one of the added difficulties in arranging the business of the House, particularly when we are discussing matters that affect European procedures and arrangements, is that many hon. Members are engaged in the business of other places. My hon. Friend himself has often been engaged in such activities. That also adds to the difficulties of arranging a debate that suits all hon. Members in all the different parts of the House. The Government have to take into account the representations made on these matters by the official Opposition. I am sure that all hon. Members understand that. What I have sought to do is to take account of all considerations.

I cannot say that what I have proposed has met with universal, instant approval, but that does not mean that what I have proposed is not wise. In the end it may well be discovered that we are able to have a full debate, and that at the end of that debate the Government will be able to take it into account. That is all that I have to say on that subject. If I have not persuaded my hon. Friend, I am very sorry. There is no hon. Member that I should be more eager to persuade. However, I believe that the experiment will work and that we shall have a full debate, and the Government will not make up their minds on the matters posed in the White Paper till they have heard what has been said in the House of Commons.

There will then have to be a Bill, which will also give rise to considerable debate. Therefore, when my hon. Friend says that the matter should be debated widely in the country I entirely agree to the extent that the more widely it is debated the more will many people see the seriousness of the constitutional implication. The national debate on this subject will not be brought to an end on the Monday week after we return. Even the Cabinet debate will not be brought to an end. In fact, in those circumstances, it will then start. It is no use hon. Members laughing. Lord Chatham said that all Cabinets are divided and I am not, therefore, revealing any great historical secret if I say that occasionally there are glimpses of differences of attitude and emphasis in the present Cabinet. I hope that if I am quoted it will be exactly in those soporific words.

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) was among a large number of hon. Members who, having addressed the House powerfully and passionately, sent polite notes to say that they would not be present to hear me reply. I am particularly sorry not to be able to reply to the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury because he said that he was searching for a polite way to put things, and we all thought that he was under considerable strain. I am not surprised that he has had to retire altogether, and I hope that it will not be thought discourteous of me if I leave my reply to a time when I can say exactly what I think to his face. I should prefer to do things in that way.

The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) raised questions about agriculture. The Council of Ministers meeting of 29th March did not reach agreement on Community agricultural support prices for 1977–78. The United Kingdom delegation pressed for a settlement that would be fair to the housewife as well as the farmer. We were unable to secure that, but we shall renew our efforts. I thought that when the Minister of State reported to the House he commanded widespread support for what he had to say. I believe that all the British people, including the farming community, are glad to see that we have such a powerful British voice in these discussions, and to see that British interests are being safeguarded by the Minister of Agriculture.

The hon. Member for Devon, West also asked about prison officers. A scheme for the improvement of prison officers' quarters at Dartmoor is the subject of discussion between the Home Office and the Prison Officers Association. The Home Secretary hopes that outstanding issues will be quickly resolved so that the scheme can be implemented.

I have now gone through most of the matters that have been raised, except some major ones that I intended to reserve till the end.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) raised questions about Chancellor's Budget proposals. Obviously, there will be a full opportunity to discuss that matter when the Finance Bill comes before us. I should have thought that that was the proper way to do things.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The point that I was trying to make in a brief intervention was that this matter is linked with the Government's discussion with trade union leaders. If there are pay rises of 30 per cent. or even 13 per cent. there will be a devaluation of child benefit by 13 per cent. and that would be far greater in its impact than a 5 per cent. devaluation of the green pound. The Government do not seem to realise that.

Mr. Foot

I do not accept those figures, but the matter can be debated during the Finance Bill. I cannot argue the matter with the hon. Gentleman now because I have already spoken at great length in seeking to reply to the points that have been made by hon. Members opposite. If I made my remarks too brief the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members opposite would say that I was treating the House with disrespect by not replying to the matters that have been raised.

In reply to the hon. Member for Oswestry, I must point out that I have already dealt with questions on the direct elections debate. I hope that I have removed any suggestion that I was behaving as a remorseless bureaucrat. I was taking account of opinions in different parts of the House about how the debate should be conducted.

The hon. Member for Oswestry, also raised the matter of the dealings that he has had with Liberals in his constituency. I fully understand the hon. Member's sensitivity about the Liberal vote in his constituency.

The hon. Member also made representations about the Agee and Hosenball debate and asked whether that had been raised in our discussions with the Liberals. Apart from the times when the matter has been raised in the House there have been no special discussions with the Liberals on it. That matter has been raised most persistently by my hon. Friends who believe that the matter should be debated in the House because questions of civil liberties may be involved. I fully accept that this is the case, and the Government have given an absolute guarantee to my hon. Friends that we shall have a debate in which these various questions can be discussed.

I now turn to the speech that was made by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire. He made the accusation that the Government are dragging their feet over devolution. I never knew that he was quite such an enthusiast for devolution. We know how eager the right hon. Gentleman has been to press ahead with discussions and legislation. I am sure he would agree that the quicker we can put a wide-ranging statute on the book the better he will be pleased. However, I did not fully grasp the measure of his impatience, but I do so now and I shall take it into account. I hope that the discussions with him and others can be renewed. I cannot give any absolute date, but I am taking fully into account the representations that they have made, and I hope that I shall not be asked to hold up the Adjournment of the House in order that we may have these discussions with them. We shall try to hold renewed discussions speedily.

Our discussions with the Liberal Party seem to have given rise to interest and, indeed, annoyance among hon. Members opposite, who have questions that they want to put to the Liberals, but it would be difficult for them to do that today—although that is neither here nor there. The Liberals are of age and can speak for themselves, and I am sure that they will do so on future occasions.

The Opposition should take my advice on the matter and try to suppress their curiosity and their determination to batter at this door so often, because the more that they do so the more they indicate that we made a wise and reasonable arrangement. Of course, the Conservatives do not like it, because they do not like being defeated in votes, particularly in a vote of confidence. They were roundly and soundly defeated on a vote of confidence and they have been licking their wounds ever since; but they should not bare their wounds in the House. I shall give the Conservatives some advice, although I know that they are not eager to take it, and that is, that they should keep quiet on this subject and should not press any questions, then there might be much more anxiety in other quarters. However, I cannot instruct the Conservatives any further about how they should run their business.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

If we were given a verbatim record of the discussions that were held between the Liberals and Labour Ministers the public could form their own conclusions about whether there was any value in them at all.

Mr. Foot

I should have thought that the value has been pretty clearly expressed, and that that is why Conservative Members are so annoyed. That is the cause of their anger.

It is no novelty in the history of Parliament for arrangements to be made between the parties in the House so that the Conservative Party does not win elections—and that is greatly in the national interest. Arrangements of that character have been made at previous times in our history, and it has often been the case that conversations have taken place between the parties. That is a matter for which there is no ministerial responsibility in the form in which hon. Gentleman opposite have so far put their questions. I suggest that they should search for other ways of putting their questions which may have a better chance of eliciting information.

I should have thought that what was said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was quite clear. There is nothing to conceal and there are no secret clauses. My right hon. Friend made a statement on the nature of the understanding and it was confirmed by the Leader of the Liberal Party. As the country has been able to see, the understanding has great benefits for the nation.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

While on the subject of Liberals, living and dead and visible and invisible, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, before the Adjournment, the Government will be making a move on Mentmore, the home of a former Liberal Prime Minister?

Mr. Foot

An answer was given in the House about Mentmore the other day and I have nothing to add to what was said then by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

In conclusion—I always find it wise to announce that one's peroration is coming in order to get cheers beforehand, since they may not be available afterwards—I say to the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire that we shall have many more such debates in this Parliament. There will be the Adjournment debates for Whitsun, summer and Christmas this year, four more next year and two or three—I have not worked out exactly how many—in 1979. All these matters can be raised again in those debates, but I think that hon. Members will see that the Government will have disposed of them satis- factorily and when we have a similar debate this time next year, Opposition Members will have to fabricate some other subjects on which to attack the Government.

I know that the whole House will unite in wishing to speed ahead to an election in which the Government will be able to get a full majority. That is what we wish. I know that Opposition Members would like to get an election soon, but we do not propose to order our affairs to gratify the Conservative Central Office. Some of us did not come into political life for that purpose and nothing that I have seen of the conduct of Opposition Members suggests that I should adopt that course now. However, I do not wish to say anything to mar the unanimity for which I appeal, and I hope that the motion can be accepted.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House at its rising to-morrow do adjourn till Tuesday 19th April.