HC Deb 27 July 1977 vol 936 cc817-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the draft Redundancy Payments (Variation of Rebates) Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 25th July, be approved.—[Mr. Booth.]

12.23 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This draft order purports to be made by the Secretary of State in the exercise of powers conferred on him by Section 1(1) and Section (3) of the Redundancy Rebates Act 1977. But the Redundancy Rebates Act 1977 has not been printed, there is no copy in the Vote Office and there is no reference at the foot of the page. How can we deal with an order and see whether the Secretary of State has power to make it if the Act is not before us?

Mr. Speaker

The responsibility for this order is the Minister's. I cannot go into it any further.

12.24 a.m.

Mr. Barney Hayhoe (Brentford and Isleworth)

I hope that the Minister will seriously consider the important point put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page). Is it right to seek the approval of the House for an order when the legislation under which the order is being made is not available to hon. Members?

I shall recall briefly the dubious ancestry of the order. Twelve months ago the Government got their figures wrong about the state of the Redundancy Payments Fund. They thought that it was running into an increasing deficit whereas when the true situation became known, it was, in fact, moving into an increasing surplus. Nevertheless, the Government attempted first to push through legislation based on the "phoney" calculation that the fund was going into surplus. That legislation was defeated on Second Reading—the first time in 90 years that a Government had been defeated on Second Reading.

The Government, unwilling to accept the clear verdict of the House, tried again to bring in a rather more devious piece of legislation. On that occasion they succeeded in getting a majority and in getting the measure passed into law, although it seems to have been beyond their abilities to get the text drafted and printed so that it would be available for hon. Members to study.

The latest act of this discreditable tale is this order, which will reduce from 50 to 41 per cent. the rebates available for firms which have to make redundancy payments.

This squalid measure gives the Government an enforced loan at the expense not of the strong but of the weak—namely, firms which have to make workers. redundant. How shameful it is that the Department of Employment, on the day after we have had record high unemployment figures announced, is to be forced to bring in this leech-like provision that will suck a little more out of industry, which already faces difficulties. Cutting the redundancy rebates in this way will destroy jobs and create no new ones. Ministers know this to be so, but they have not the courage to resist Treasury pressure and they do not appear to have the self-respect to come to the House to seek approval for such an unnecessary change in our redundancy arrangements. We shall vote against this squalid measure. It will do great harm and it should be rejected.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

I do not wish to detain the House, but this is a matter to which we should pay considerable attention since it is one of the engines by which unemployment is going up and we should not pass the order without examining it and calling for an explanation. I believe I am right in saying that this matter was not announced when the Business Statement was made last Thursday. We have not, therefore, had an opportunity to examine it properly.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps I may help the House and the hon. Gentleman by saying that the scope of this debate is confined to the question of whether it is appropriate to make the proposed reduction in rebate and that the principle of redundancy rebates is not at issue.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to pursue the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page.) Is it not an affront to the House to invite it to approve an order under an Act that is not available in the Vote Office? In accordance with a precedent followed by the Government earlier this Session, would it not be appropriate if we were to defer consideration of the order until we have available to us the Act which is the parent Act of the order we are discussing? Have not the Government acknowledged on a previous occasion, on the Coal Industry Bill, that it was not appropriate for us to discuss a matter of this kind until we had all the appropriate documents available to the House?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman answered his own point of order when he referred to the Government deciding something. I do not take any decision. Therefore, there can be no point of order.

James Prior (Lowestoft)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we have a statement from the Government on whether they think it right to proceed on an order of this nature when the parent Act is not available to the House?

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise to the House that the Act is not available in the Vote Office. This is the fifth time that this matter has been before the House, and on each occasion I have stressed the importance and urgency of getting the measure through. This is a matter for the House to decide.

Mr. Graham Page

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In deference to your ruling, since I first raised the matter I have given time for Ministers to discover that I was right. There is no copy of the Act in the Vote Office. There is not even a chapter reference to it. I should have thought that a copy could have been produced by now. If the matter is so urgent, the Government ought to have provided us with a copy of the Act.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman heard the Minister's statement. It is not my responsibility. I follow the Order Paper.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not satisfied with the so-called answer that the Minister has given. No matter how late it is, if we are to be asked as a House to put up with absolute incompetence and with not having in front of us the papers upon which we must make decisions, on behalf of my constituents I must say that that is not good enough. It is not possible for us to vote on such an issue tonight. I feel extremely strongly about this sheer incompetence on the part of the Government. Parliament cannot go into recess with such a demonstration of incompetence. I protest most strongly.

Mr. Gow

Further to the point of order, Mr Speaker. It will be within your recollection that on an earlier occasion, last month, the Leader of the House agreed that, because certain papers that we should have had were not available, it would not be right for the House to consider the matter in question. Since the Leader of the House is not here tonight, would it not be appropriate for the Minister to ask the right hon. Gentleman to come? In the absence of the Leader of the House, we Back Benchers look to you, Mr Speaker, for protection.

Mr. Hayhoe

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since the Minister has claimed urgency to excuse the incompetence of the Government in the matter, could one remind him that the Government first announced the introduction of this legislation on 22nd July 1976? How, in the face of that, can the Government now claim urgency? That beggars description. Of course the Government should now withdraw the order, in view of these important points of order, and I call upon Ministers to do so. If they have not the authority, let a member of the Cabinet—the Secretary of State for Employment or the Leader of the House—come to the House and take the necessary action.

Mr. Speaker

I can add nothing to what I have already said.

Mr. Graham Page

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said earlier that this was not a matter for you, but. with great respect, I question that. Can we not ask you to protect Back Benchers of the House when we are asked to debate a subject without the papers being in front of us? It could be that we shall wish to argue that the order is completely ultra vires, and we shall not be able to do that without having the papers before us. It seems to me that this is a matter for your concern in protecting Back Benchers from impositions by the Government.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order to ask the Leader of the House, who is behind your Chair, to act not as a member of the Government but as the protector of Back Benchers on both sides of the House?

Mr. Crouch

Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker. I have already said that I am not happy with the statement by the Minister of State. I, too, must look to you to protect the interests of Back Benchers who are seeking to protect the interests of their constituents, who have sent us here to decide matters. How can we decide matters on which we have no papers? Parliament is held in contempt by some people because it is seen that we do not pay sufficient attention to the procedures of the place. I maintain to you that, if we allowed this matter to go to a vote tonight, that would not be the proper way to deal with it because we have not had the opportunity as a House of knowing the full facts since we have no papers before us. It is not possible for us to make a decision by a vote without having the papers. It is not good enough for the Minister simply to say that the matter is urgent.

Mr. Prior

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A matter of principle is involved here. [Interruption.] I can assure Labour Members that, while this may appear to them to be a comparatively small matter, when they are on this side of the House again and other things happen they will take a rather different view. A House of Commons matter is involved.

If the Government do not produce the papers, the House cannot come to a proper decision. In the circumstances, it would be quite reasonable for the Government to withdraw the order tonight. The Leader of the House is around the Chamber now although he is not in it. It would not be asking too much of any Leader of the House to say that he will withdraw the order. This is a comparatively small matter in itself, but it involves a matter of high principle for hon. Members on both sides of the House. I do not think that we should let this go through, and I advise my right hon. and hon. Friends not to let it go through in this form because there is this matter of principle. I appeal to the Government, from their own point of view as well as from ours, to treat this as a House of Commons matter and to withdraw the order now.

Mr. Harold Walker

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand the indignation of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) and his hon. Friends, but surely the proper way to express it is in the Division Lobby.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is seldom that I raise a point of order with you, but I do so now as a Back Bencher because we look to you to protect our interests. The Minister has suggested that the best place to deal with this matter is in the Division Lobby. Will you, in the interests of Back Benchers, say to the House that we cannot go into the Division Lobby tonight on a very important matter—and it is important, whatever Labour Members below the Gangway may think—because we have not had the papers and the Act?

How can we make a decision when we have not got the facts? Surely, if you are to represent and stand up for the interests of this House and of Back Benchers, you should advise the Government that we cannot proceed at this time and that they should withdraw the order.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you to consider our interests for another reason that may possibly have escaped your notice. We are aware that the relevant Act is not available at the moment and that the order refers to the original Act in several places—namely, in the preamble, which states that the Secretary of State is granted his power to introduce the order by virtue of Section 1 (1) and 1 (3) of the original Act. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker—in so doing I ask you to protect the interests of the House.—that it is not possible for us to ascertain whether the Secretary of State is exceeding the powers that the Act has granted him if the Act is not available for reference. It may be that the Secretary of State is doing no more and no less than the Act says he may do, but we must have the evidence before us so that we can question him properly if and when we proceed with the order. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that it is a matter for you to concern yourself with on our behalf.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you to reflect that earlier in the Session hon. Members on both sides of the House refused to consider the EEC document for the approximation of taxation of commercial vehicles because there was doubt whether the correct document was before us. This is not a party political matter. It does not matter whether it is a redundancy payments order or a commercial vehicle taxation order. The point is that if the document is not before the House we cannot give the issue proper consideration. When the EEC document came before the House, hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber got together—it did not matter whether they supported our membership of the Common Market or whether they did not—and refused to consider it. I find it rather depressing that there is no Labour Member who appears to take the point. It has nothing to do with the merits or desirability of passing the order; it is merely that the correct document is not before the House. Through you, Mr. Speaker, I ask the Government and ordinary Back Bench Members to consider the position fairly and squarely in that light.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not long since we discussed treating the House with contempt. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, with great respect, that there may be no greater contempt than to assume that the House is a rubber stamp that is prepared to accept that which it has not read. How can the House possibly consider and judge a document that it has not had an opportunity of reading? Not only has it not had the opportunity to see the document; it has not had the opportunity to consider it. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that it is contempt of the House, which we may need to consider further at a later stage, that we are being called upon by Ministers and the Leader of the House to take such a course. The Leader of the House, who is available, near the Chamber, does not choose to come in. What greater contempt can there be than to lurk outside the Chamber and not come in to face the House and explain one's reasons?

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It would appear that the Chair has been put in an intolerable position. No one can question the fact that the Chair has no concern in what the Government may or may not put on the Order Paper. It would be wrong of anyone to try to suggest that that is the responsibility of the Chair. We all know that it is not. However, it is of considerable importance that the House is frequently criticised when legislation gets on to the statute book which is inaccurate or has been imprecisely considered. It seems to be a matter for the Chair to try to ensure that the legislation that leaves the House is as accurate in its legal aspects as is humanly possibly.

The point that has been made time and again is that if hon. Members are unable to see whether the references that are made in the order are accurate according to the statute we are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said, being asked to act as a rubber stamp. I ask you to consider, Mr. Speaker, whether it is fair to point out to Ministers that it has always been the responsibility of the Department and the responsibility of the Minister in charge of whatever the business may be to ensure that the House has before it the papers that are necessary for the passage of the motion that is in front of it.

That may not be a point of order, but it has certainly been a matter of practice during the 19 years that I have been a Member of the House. It is the responsibility of the Minister. I recall the former Member for Belper, now Lord George-Brown, going on for two hours before Ministers accepted that it was their responsibility and that the House had the right to reject any piece of legislation or order unless the relevant information was provided.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you would be willing to say that that is a precedent and that it is a responsibility that Ministers ought to discharge.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that there is a copy of the Act in the Library. I understand that earlier this evening the Government were preparing copies of amendments to the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill, which we shall be debating later. Could not the Minister or some of his officials go to the Library and copy the relevant pages of the Act? We could then adjourn for an hour and come back with the details that we require.

Mr. Michael Mates (Petersfield)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am neither a lawyer nor a parliamentary draftsman. It is with a genuine plea from the heart that I ask for your help.

The order states: The Secretary of State in exercise of powers conferred on him by section 1(1) and 3 of the Redundancy Rebates Act 1977. I have not seen that Act, but I have attempted personally to obtain it from the Vote Office and I have established that it is not available. But more important, and why it is vital, Mr. Speaker, that you should give us your help, is that Article 1 states: This Order may be cited as the Redundancy Payments (Variation of Rebates) Order 1977 and shall come into operation at the end of the period of fourteen days beginning with the day on which it is made. If the order is made tonight, it comes into operation within 14 days. Whether the Redundancy Rebates Act 1977 will be available tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, I know not and cannot discover. But surely it is a matter entirely for the Chair—not for the will, whims or desires of the Government to get their legislation through quickly—whether, if there is an error in the draft order, the House of Commons can do anything about it before the 14 days elapse.

It is pertinent to ask: what should we do if we discover that the powers conferred upon the Secretary of State are not reflected in the substance of the draft order or that the Secretary of State, no doubt accidentally and possibly with the best of intentions and good faith, has exceeded those powers? By that time Parliament will be in recess and we shall not be able to question the Minister or to complain that what he has done is improper—albeit accidentally—or, indeed, that this is a dictatorial piece of paper to enable the Minister to get done quickly what he wants to get done.

It is all very well to state that this is a matter for the Government, but I do not understand what the draft order involves. I do not understand what powers the Government are seeking to elucidate and hurry on into operation within the 14 days as a result of the order. Surely, if we do not know and have no means of knowing what is in the Act to which the order refers, it cannot be right for us to come to a decision upon it without the assistance of the substance upon which we are deciding.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are being put in an extremely difficult position. It is within the knowledge of the House that the Leader of the House was behind your Chair a few moments ago. I understand that he has also been observed moving up and down the "Aye" Lobby, no doubt restlessly awaiting the vote that the Minister of State wishes to press ahead with. That is not good enough. The Leader of the House can help us in this matter. Can you, Mr. Speaker, let it be known that you would welcome the appearance of the Leader of the House to help us in our present difficulties?

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House is in grave danger of being treated with contempt in this matter. There was a precedent to this situation on 14th June. During discussion of the Report stage of the Coal Industry Bill a similar situation arose. Papers were not available to the House concerning the Committee stage. The Leader of the House, in response to the wishes of Back Benchers, came quickly to the Dispatch Box and announced that the proceedings would be withdrawn and re-presented when the necessary papers were available.

We have now suffered from a series of similar misadventures in the course of this Session. This reflects very harshly upon the Government for their inefficiency in not providing the necessary papers. It is wrong for the House to be asked to approve this legislation without the necessary papers being available. We should require the Leader of the House to appear before us to answer these charges.

Mr. David Crouch

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The concern of the House has been expressed at the way in which it is being asked to proceed tonight in the last days of the Session. The situation is intolerable. What sort of sitting is this becoming? Is is becoming a secret session in which we do not know what the Government intend us to vote upon? What has happened to democracy in this House? Are we being inflicted with autocracy? In itself this issue might not be of great magnitude, but under the order I am asked to consider certain matters that the Secretary of State says he has done under powers conferred on him by certain sections of the Redundancy Rebates Act 1977. I do not know what those powers are. How can I make a decision on this small matter? Maybe there should be a device whereby we could ask the Leader of the House to come to the Box. Is it not within your power, Mr. Speaker, to command the attendance of the Leader of the House? We are defenceless in the face of an autocracy which is trying to rule the country.

Mr. Speaker

I have listened with care to the points of order which hon. Members on the Government side would have been making had they been on the Opposition side and did not have the papers. It is the right of hon. Members of the House to receive papers that are relevant to the items before the House. I have been here long enough to have witnessed occasions when this has happened before and when my predecessors have expressed the opinion that the House was entitled to the papers. But Mr. Speaker has to put the business on the Order Paper.

Undoubtedly serious note will, I hope, be taken of the fact that the House is denied the papers that it is entitled to receive. I can say only that I shall make a further statement tomorrow.

Mr. Prior

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of what you have said and as it is known that the Leader of the House is within a short distance of the Chamber, the Government should think about this matter again and withdraw the order. Why cannot the Leader of the House come down to the Chamber now? It is nothing short of disgraceful that he is not here. None of his hon. Friends has defended his not coming to the Chamber in view of what you have said, Mr. Speaker.

Where is that great parliamentarian? Is it that he knows perfectly well the view that he would take if he were here? He is not doing his job. He is not giving the support to the Chair that it should be receiving. He is failing in his duty to the House of Commons. I am prepared to continue speaking so that the Leader of the House might be fetched by the Whip.

A considerable principle is involved which you, Mr. Speaker, have now fully supported. I should have thought that this was a matter which could be settled without the Leader of the House—should he not arrive—by the Minster of State now saying that the Government will withdraw the order.

We have heard not one defence from the Government Back Benches. We have heard not a word in support of the Government continuing with the order tonight. Labour Members know that an important principle is at stake which they might wish to use in future. This is a House of Commons matter and it should be treated as such.

It is not good enough for the Government to behave in this manner. Could we please have a statement from the Minister of State that he will withdraw the order, in view of what Mr. Speaker has said, in view of what we are saying and in view of the fact that there has been no support from his own Benches for the view taken by the Government? May we please now have that statement?

Mr. Gow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A moment ago, in the hearing of all of us, you gave a most considered ruling that the House was entitled to receive papers. I ask respectfully, Mr. Speaker, for a further ruling. If the House is entitled to receive papers—I emphasise the word "entitled"—who is the responsible authority to ensure that that entitlement is honoured and fulfilled? It seems to me, Mr. Speaker, that you were saying to the Government Front Bench, admittedly in the absence of the Leader of the House, that there was an obligation on the Government to provide the House with papers to which you have ruled that the House is entitled. In those circumstances, could you tell us who is the responsible authority for ensuring that the House receives that to which you have said it is entitled?

The second point on which I should like your ruling, Mr. Speaker, is this. No doubt, as is the consequence of your ruling, under the strict legal procedures the Government are entitled to disregard your ruling about our entitlement. However, is there not a special duty resting upon the House to ensure not only that the strict legalities are complied with but that the common rules of natural justice are complied with? Is it not a defiance of those common rules of natural justice that we should be denied a copy of the Redundancy Rebates Act 1977, from which Act alone the draft order is derived?

We are talking about a matter which in the fairly near future may very well affect right hon. and hon. Members who are at present on the Government side of the House. When discussing this matter, it is very relevant to reflect upon the rights of future Oppositions as well as the rights of the present Opposition.

The issue is wider than that. The issue is whether this House ought to debate an order the parent Act of which is not available to hon. Members and which could be of real consequence and effect for all our people. This is a matter of very grave constitutional importance indeed. In the absence of the Leader of the House, the only person to whom we can look for protection is you, Mr. Speaker, and we know that we shall not look in vain.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

In the light of what you have said, Mr. Speaker, on an occasion like this one has enormous sympathy for the Minister's position. Perhaps it might not be echoed in all quarters of the House at present, but I think I understand the position very well. In these circumstances, I hope that the Minister, recognising, as I am certain he does, the validity of the views which have been expressed by my colleagues and the force of the points that they have been making, would wish to intervene for a brief moment in order to make some observation.

I am quite certain that the Minister is unhappy about the position and that he would wish to retrieve it in some way. I am sure he recognises that, after the Government have put forward the case that they have, hon. Members are fully entitled to have the parent document to which to refer. I feel certain that the absence of that document is entirely due to an oversight and one that the Minister would not wish to have happened. But the fact is that it has happened, and in those circumstances he must take note of the fact, as do other hon. Members, that he himself has the opportunity to put this matter right.

I hope that the Minister will seek an early opportunity to comment on the situation which has arisen, in order to meet the wishes of the House to allay hon. Members' doubts and anxieties. In the light of what you have fairly stated, Mr. Speaker, I hope that the Minister might seek an opportunity to make a brief statement in order to put this matter at rest.

Mr. Harold Walker

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bournemouth; West (Sir J. Eden) for speaking in the way that he has done. It is, of course, obvious that I am in great difficulty. But I am in great difficulty not only in respect of the problem posed to the House but in respect of the very issue itself.

I readily confess that when the matter was first drawn to the attention of the House I was unaware that the Act was not in the Vote Office. I understand that this is because of printing difficulties with which in recent months and years the House has not been unfamiliar. Of course, I was guided by the form of your original remarks, Mr. Speaker, when this difficulty was first brought to the attention of the House and also by the brief guidance that I was able to seek from the Clerk of the House.

I am a little hesitant to debate the substance of the order because we have not been able to discuss it as I and, I believe, the House would like. But I am bound to say, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) intimated, that this matter was brought before the House as part of the Chancellor's package in July of last year and its urgency was pressed then. In fairness, I should point out that right hon. and hon. Members opposite have opposed each stage of the measure before the House, and this was an inevitable part of the delay that ensued.

We have had debates in the House about the importance of keeping public expenditure under control. Now, with every month that passes, we lose £1.35 million of public expenditure saving that would otherwise take place. If we do not pass the order tonight, it means that we shall have to reintroduce it in the next Session of Parliament and several months of public expenditure saving will have been lost.

I have attached great weight, Mr. Speaker, to the words that you have expressed to the House and also to the very strong feelings that have been expressed by Conservative Members. Clearly the House is entitled to take the view that it will not give approval to that order, but I feel that the right way to do that is in the Division Lobby. As I said earlier, in pursuing and persisting with this course it was my understanding that we were acting in no way contrary to the rules and precedents of the House. This is a matter for the House itself to resolve, and the right place to resolve it is in the Division Lobby.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not intolerable that the House should proceed in ignorance of the facts and that you should be treated so discourteously, as I feel you are being treated, by being kept in ignorance of what is going on in this Chamber? I have good reason to believe that consultations are taking place behind your Chair. I think I am right in saying that the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), has been privy to those consultations and he might therefore be able to help the House and you with regard to what is going on.

It is within the knowledge of all of us here that it is highly probable that the Leader of the House is involved in those consultations. It seems to me to be totally intolerable that not only do we not have the papers but we are given no information at all as to what is actually happening or what is going to happen. How long must we go on about this business before we are told?

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to make this point with the very greatest respect to the Chair and to the Officers of the House.

The situation which has occurred tonight is far from unprecedented. I can remember occasions in the middle of 1974 when there were rather similar occurrences. The House had passed Acts or instruments which had been completed and, therefore, the texts were available somewhere. The House had decided them. The texts had gone to be printed. But, because of printing difficulties, they had not come back and were not avail. able to right hon. and hon. Members. I was told in the Public Bill Office that it did not see itself being responsible for maintaining unprinted—typed—copies of those texts during the intervening time before printed copies were available. I say with the utmost respect to you, Mr. Speaker, that it ought to do so.

In my view, in the period when printed copies are not available, it is the responsibility not of the Government but of the institutions of the House to ensure that the texts which have been completed and passed by the House are available to right hon. and hon. Members, whether in printed form or in some other form. Right hon. and hon. Members have been directing their criticism at the Government, and I am not loth to do that myself on occasions. But I acquit the Government of any responsibility for this. I believe that the institutions of the House are responsible for ensuring that documents appear.

Mr. Prior

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. If, in fact, the responsibility is yours, we ask you to make a ruling very much along the lines that you intimated your feelings were a few minutes ago. If you maintain, as you have a perfect right to do, that it is not your responsibility, the matter comes back to the Government and their incompetence in putting an item on the Order Paper in the way they have done when the necessary papers are not available.

In either case, it seems to me that one or other will now have to make a decision to withdraw the order tonight and put it down for another day.

Mr. Speaker

I listened with great respect to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), and, of course, it may well be that in the future responsibility for seeing to these matters is transferred. But, as it is at present, I have allowed a long run of points of order on this matter, and, since there is nothing that I can do about it tonight, I now suggest that we go on with the business. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There is nothing that I can do.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that we have reached a new departure. Although the whole House will have great sympathy with the Minister in his personal capacity, his short intervention recently must have dispelled a certain amount of that sympathy.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that it was because of printing disputes that the Act was not available. This doctrine seems to me to cause severe problems for the House in the future. I can imagine a situation where we may be debating a Finance Bill and, due to printing difficulties, copies of the Bill may not be available. Will the Government then invite us to pass tax laws, even though we do not know what they are proposed to be—to say nothing of our inability to amend them—because we have no papers before us?

The suggestion that Government supporters should be invited to go through the Division Lobby to approve this order although none of them knows what it does and none of them has seen the parent Act—and cannot see it even if he wishes to do so—smacks to me of the suggestion that the House should simply become a rubber stamp for what the Government may wish to do later when they come round to sorting out the difficulties in Her Majesty's Stationery Office. After all, whose responsibility is it that there are printing difficulties? It is well known to all hon. Members that in the Basement we have a blackleg printing press set up by the Government. Of all the people who would be suitable to operate it, surely those in the Department of Employment are the paramount example. The Minister could send the PPSs into the Basement and start manufacturing copies of the Act.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have been very patient in allowing the argument to proceed, but the hon. Gentleman is not advancing a point of order now. He is making a speech, a very interesting one, but not one that is a matter for me.

Mr. Ridley

May I come to my point of order, Mr. Speaker? It is that the failure to produce the Act makes it impossible for the House to proceed and that the only honourable thing for the Government to do is to withdraw the order now. I should hate to have to move to adjourn but if the Minister is not prepared to withdraw the order I do not think that my right hon. and hon. Friends would wish to proceed with it or with any further business.

I know that Labour hon. Members want to take their buckets and spades tomorrow morning and get away to the seaside, and 12th August is not far away. But we on the Opposition Benches have been prepared to stay here to see the Government's business through, and we would have been prepared to see endless Bills with endless Lords amendments—there are 64 on the Housing Homeless Persons Bill. We are prepared to stay here tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow night—as long as is necessary. But the essential condition is that the matters put before us should be supported by the documents necessary for hon. Members to understand what they are being asked to pass into law.

In the absence of that, my point of order is that the Government should withdraw the order and pack it up for tonight, because there is no more business to be done until they do.

I remember occasions when matters of this sort—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has many happy memories, but I must ask him now to keep to his point of order.

Mr. Ridley

I was just about to say, Mr. Speaker, that I remember when irregularities of this sort have happened before in the House, and on those occasions it has always proved to be the case that no further business could be done by the Government of the day, of whatever party, until the irregularities were put right or the business was withdrawn. Therefore, I call upon the Government to do the honourable thing. I am sure that my hon. Friends would be prepared to stay here on Friday, Saturday and Sunday—anything to get the Government's business through—though I do not know whether Liberal hon. Members would be prepared to stay through Friday, Saturday and Sunday or whether the Lib-Lab pact extends to giving up a weekend in the interests of Government business.

The House should not be asked to pass the order without the proper documentation for us to understand what it is all about.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

Very few of the Conservative hon. Members working themselves up into a lather about the non-availability of papers are present with Labour hon. Members in the early hours of the morning when we deal with EEC business. If they were, they would know that it is not infrequent for crucial EEC papers to be unavailable, out of date or non-existent. But that has not been a cause for objection from many Conservative hon. Members when these matters have been discussed and the House has been called upon to approve those EEC papers. Therefore, we must see the spectacle on the Opposition Benches as another example of synthetic indignation and hypocrisy.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have already told the House that it is not within your competence to deal with this matter since it is a matter for the Government to provide papers. You have said, in answer to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), that it is not at this stage a matter for the Officers of the House.

May I put to you that there is one power you possess which is unreservedly yours: to protect the House by suspending the sitting until papers are produced. I would ask you to exercise that power which is yours, unfettered. It would be acceptable in the interests of Parliament.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

May I move, Mr. Speaker, that this point of order, though unopposed, may be proceeded with until any hour?

Mr. Graham Page

Although that is a new aspect of a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I also have a new aspect of it. We have put our point of order forward on the basis that we have no papers before us and that the parent Act is not printed, but there is the further point that unless we see the parent Act we cannot tell whether it has come into operation and we cannot even tell whether it has had Royal Assent.

We may be being asked to make an order under a statute which does not exist or, at least, has not come into operation. We cannot tell unless we have the document in front of us.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

I normally sit quietly and do not jump to my feet unnecessarily, Mr. Speaker, but can you give a ruling since we frequently rely on precedent? Is this to be accepted in future as a precedent? If the Government have difficulty in the printing of documents, is it to be maintained that that makes no difference and the House should proceed with the business? Is this to be accepted as a precedent for the House?

Mr. Speaker

I hope that we are not making precedents tonight. I am clear that I have allowed a full discussion on these points of order. I have explained that I believe that the House is entitled to have the papers, and we have heard the Minister. I now call Mr. Hayhoe.

Mr. Hayhoe

Many times we on this side have called for the presence of the

Leader of the House. Is it not intolerable and unprecedented that he should be skulking around behind your Chair, Mr. Speaker, and is not prepared to show his face in the Chamber? He used to think of himself as a parliamentarian, but he has not got the guts to come here and to say, as Leader of the House, what is to be done.

It is monstrously disgraceful behaviour by the Leader of the House. Is it not right, Mr. Speaker, that you should suspend the session—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sitting."]—suspend the sitting to give him time to work up the courage to come here and face the House, and to do the proper thing by withdrawing the order? The Ministers in charge of the legislation do not appear to have the courage to withdraw it. Let the Leader of the House come here and do the decent thing.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

It is essential that something should be done to protect you, Mr. Speaker, from what is going on. Surely the Leader of the House is required to explain the position. It cannot be accepted that simply because, with the present Leader of the House, this sort of thing has happened before, it may continue. It has happened far too often in the past. The House cannot—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite may laugh like drains—and drains they are—but it is not very clever that the House must put up with a situation in which business is constantly brought before it when the requisite papers are not available to hon. Members. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will be able to use your influence to ensure that the Leader of the House tells us what he proposes to do about the situation in which he has placed us.

Mr. David Hunt (Wirral)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. While we are waiting for the Leader of the House, may I bring a serious matter to your attention?

The House has been misled. I was one of those who went to the Vote Office for a copy of the Act. I was told that a copy was not available. When the matter was raised in the House, it was stated quite clearly from the Government Benches that all was well because there was a copy in the Library. The points of order have been going on for some time, and I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you do not mind, but I slipped out of the Chamber a few moments ago and went to the Library to find the Act. I was there for some time, but after going through all the boxes and searching through every possible nook and cranny I came to the conclusion that a copy of the Act was not available in the Library. Perhaps a copy was available at some stage.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) said that it is extremely important that we see the Act so that we may judge whether the Secretary of State is exceeding his powers and whether what he has done is ultra vires. For the Act to disappear from the House after that important point was made casts an aura of suspicion over and highlights a very serious situation. The House is entitled to an explanation from the Leader of the House.

Mr. Emery

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I refer you to page 576 of "Erskine May", which deals with the question of parliamentary control of delegated legislation? I am loth to speak again, particularly as you have appealed so reasonably to us to proceed, but we have been on points of order for about an hour and 15 minutes and it is remarkable that my hon. Friends have so evenly kept their tempers over this difficult matter.

It is stated at the bottom of page 576 of "Erskine May": The conditions of the making of statutory instruments and the degree of parliamentary control over them will depend in each case upon the particular statute which authorises them …". If one refers back to page 573—I stress that this is the nineteenth edition—the chapter on delegated legislation begins by making it quite clear that over the last half century or more Parliament has passed an increasing volume of legislation expanding the activities of the Government into a great number of fields, often involving provisions of considerable complexity. It is for that reason that "Erskine May" rightly argues that before parliamentary control can be properly exercised the statute must be considered in its entirety, so that hon. Members can know whether the delegated legislation is accurate.

This point is carried on further at the top of page 577, where it says: Under one type of procedure the resultant instrument has no effect. Maybe, as we have no Act, this is a case where the delegated legislation would have no effect. How can I possibly know, if the Act is not before the House? Therefore, I would suggest that the sitting should be suspended for 15 minutes. Within that time the Minister could take the Act to a photo-copying machine and we could have 20 copies of it brought to the House—[AN HON. MEMBER: "We want 634 copies."] I ask my hon. Friends not to be too greedy. Surely that would get us out of this parlous situation, which is immensely embarrassing to the Minister and does the House of Commons no credit.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman(Lancaster) rose

Hon. Members

Give her a chance, George.

Mr. Speaker

I shall—in a minute. I have studied the situation. If hon. Members go on with points of order to the end of the debate, I still cannot add anything to what I have already said.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

It will be within the recollection of the House that the Minister informed us earlier in the proceedings that there was a copy of the Act in the Library. That being the case, would he care to point out where this apparently fictitious Act is reposing, in view of the extensive search that was made by my hon. Friends with total lack of success?

Mr. Prior

As my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) pointed out, this has been a good-humoured points-of-order debate, but it is not becoming so good humoured as we recognise that this is a device by the Government to allow the debate to go on for an hour and a half and for the guillotine to fall. That seems to be a further abuse of the situation into which the House is drifting tonight.

One of the ways of getting out of our troubles would be to have an adjournment of 15 minutes so that the Leader of the House could come here and report from the Dispatch Box on the Government's attitude towards this measure. It would be intolerable not only if we did not have the necessary Act to enable us to discuss the order but if the order were to go through on the basis of points of order for an hour and a half without any proper consideration of the order itself.

I see that the Leader of the House has now joined us. A good deal of the lost hour and a half might have been avoided if the right hon. Gentleman had come into the House and done his duty. His attitude tonight reflects no credit at all on the office he holds.

1.35 a.m.

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

I understand that there has been some difficulty over the order. Following representations made to me, I have made some inquiries about the way this situation can best be dealt with. Having made those inquiries, I feel that the best course the House can adopt is that we should adjourn this debate. That is how I propose that the House should deal with the matter.

I take the fullest responsibility for what has occurred. Part of the question I had to consider was the financial consequences that might follow if the order were not to be carried through the House. That matter must be taken into account. We must also take into account the timetable for the convenience of the House. Furthermore, we must also consider our relations with the other place and what has to be arranged with their Lordships, because the matter has to be dealt with in the other place as well as in this House.

I was not present to hear what was said in the House on this matter, but it has been reported to me. Naturally, when the House makes representations of this character it is my duty as Leader of the House to take account of what has been said and to see how best it can be resolved.

Therefore, I now ask the House to adjourn this debate, and I hope that before the end of the week the matter can be brought back to the House again in a proper form, with the Act printed as the House would wish. I hope that that can be the case, although I hope that the House would also take into account the fact that I have to examine the consequences that may follow.

I hope that the House will agree to adjourn this matter so that we may be able to look into it. I hope that we can bring the matter back afresh tomorrow or on Friday, and in such a manner that we can arrange it with the other place so that it can be carried through and so that there are no unfortunate repercussions on the financial affairs of the country.

We also wish to conform to the proper requirements upon which the House insists in such matters. I ask the House to allow the matter to be adjourned now. I shall seek to bring the matter back to the House and I hope that we shall be able to transact this business before we depart for the recess. However, there are many ramifactions that we must look at meanwhile.

I hope the House will accept that I did not speak earlier not because I did not wish to come before the House but because I wished to examine the consequences of the situation which had arisen.

Mr. Graham Page

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for what he has said. May I clear up one point? According to Standing Orders, orders of this kind are allowed an hour and a half of debate. It might be said that we have now used up most of that time. Will the Leader of the House somehow arrange for that full amount of time to be granted when he brings the order back?

Mr. Foot

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to have been challenged on such a comparatively easy matter. I hope that the large numbers of hon. Members who have turned up tonight will be here for the full length of the debate on this matter on Friday—if that is when we shall bring it back to the House. I promise that I shall be here, and I shall be glad to welcome all those hon. Members who are now celebrating this great parliamentary victory. I promise that we shall try to carry out this matter in accordance with the highest traditions of the House and in a manner that will best carry out the financial responsibilities of the House.

On that basis, I beg to move, That the debate be now adjourned.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The time that has had to be spent on this matter is well understood by hon. Members on this side. The debate has been conducted with good humour except for the last comment made by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity of withdrawing his foul accusations against the Leader of the House.

Mr. Prior

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for coming to the House and asking that the order should be withdrawn. I am certain that that was a right decision. I said a few moments ago that I did not think that the Leader of the House had acted in the best interests of his office. Having listened to the right hon. Gentleman, I feel inclined to withdraw that, but I must remind myself that the first consideration of the Leader of the House must be not the convenience of the Government's timetable but the principle that lies behind the fact that papers were not available to the House. Now that the right hon. Gentleman has said what he has, I am delighted, but he could have done it at least an hour and a quarter earlier.

Question, That the debate be now adjourned, put and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed this day.

Mr. Graham Page

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since I raised my point of order some considerable time ago, may I apologise to the House that the matter has kept it so long and may I sincerely thank you for the way you have ruled.