HC Deb 03 April 1978 vol 947 cc29-34
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

I very much regret that the House has suffered inconvenience on a number of recent occasions, and again today, through not having available papers in their normal printed forms. I fully realise what problems this causes for hon. Members in their conduct of the business of the House and, of course, we are doing all we can to ensure that the present difficulty is overcome and that it does not recur.

Her Majesty's Stationery Office management has informed the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service of the position and is currently in negotiation with representatives of the National Graphical Association, the trade union concerned. In the meantime, every effort is being made by the authorities of the House to provide hon. Members with essential papers.

Mr. Pym

The House will be grateful for the Lord President's statement, even though it does not add much to the sum of our knowledge. He says that HMSO has informed ACAS of the position, but has the management asked ACAS to provide conciliation or other services and what chance is there of a permanent solution? At the beginning of his statement the Lord President talked about a few recent occasions, but it is the impress- sion of hon. Members that these occasions are occurring with increasing frequency and obviously the inconvenience not only to Members but to the whole staff of the House is considerable.

Amendments to the Wales Bill were last collated as long ago as 8th March and the latest amendment has not even been printed but is on one of these photographed sheets. Is there any prospect of amendments to the Bill being collated in a proper manner tomorrow and at regular intervals in future? The Wales Bill is the most important piece of legislation before the House at present and it is here that we find the worst effects and worst example of the inconvenience caused through not having proper parliamentary papers.

Mr. Foot

As I said, I fully appreciate the great inconvenience caused to hon. Members by such a hold up in the papers. The example given by the right hon. Gentleman of the Bill which will be before the House tomorrow and on Wednesday is a telling example of the situation. We shall do our best to meet the immediate problem by the methods that I have described.

The best hope that we have for securing a permanent solution to the problem lies in the reference which has been made to ACAS which is looking into some of the deeper and more long-term questions. In the meantime, we are seeking to try to gel a fairly early settlement in order to deal with the immediate situation. I hope that some progress will be made at a meeting that is to take place tomorrow but I am not suggesting that at that meeting we shall be able to secure the long-term recommendations for which the whole House is looking to see a solution of the problem.

Mr. Pardoe

Could the Lord President make such statements a little less mealy-mouthed in future and, for instance, say something to hon. Members about the nature of the dispute? Is it about pay? Do the Government guidelines have anything to do with it? What is the problem? There is no need for him to be quite so squeamish about telling hon. Members about the problem.

Mr. Foot

The question is not involved with pay guidelines. It is not a dispute of that nature. It is about manning levels and manning discussions. Hon. Members should approach the matter with some determination, as I do, to try to secure the best and quickest solution to the problem.

I heard an hon. Member opposite say that it does not sound as though I am trying to do that, but that is not the case. I fully appreciate that the absence of such papers causes great inconvenience to hon. Members. We are doing everything possible to try to solve the problem, but I do not believe that the sort of detailed statement for which the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) has asked would have contributed to a solution.

Mr. English

The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) was right to ask about a permanent solution. We are aware that this sort of thing has been happening every year for a succession of years.

Mr. Skinner

So what? Lots of people are inconvenienced outside this building.

Mr. English

I am not talking about inconvenience. I am talking about the disease and not about the symptoms. That is precisely what I wish to ask my right hon. Friend about. It is not sufficient for him to say that the cure can be left not with the Civil Service Department, which is the responsible Department and the Minister of State for which is on the Government Front Bench at the moment, but with ACAS, which is not an executive organisation responsible for taking decisions that the CSD should be taking.

Is anyone considering when the House will get back a separate printing organisation of its own, in separate premises and responsible solely to this House? Such an organisation is bound to have different sort of working, for example, during Sessions and recesses, from an organisation responsible to the Government on, presumably, a continuous basis. Will the Leader of the House tell us when that is going to happen?

Mr. Foot

I am not prepared to comment on whether my hon. Friend's proposal for solving the matter would be satisfactory, but I am doubtful whether it would be the best solution or the best approach to the problem. My hon. Friend is under a misapprehension when he says that we are proposing to leave the solution of the problem to ACAS. This is an industrial dispute and we are seeking to secure the benefit and advantage of advice from an organisation which has better experience in these matters than any other body in the country and which has helped to solve some very complicated industrial disputes. I believe that it will also help in this dispute and I think the whole House should welcome the fact that the reference has taken place.

Mr. Peter Walker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the inconvenience to the House and contempt of the House is as nothing compared with the Government's decision today to make an announcement about the whole future of British Leyland's investment policy in a Written Answer?

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman has not been following these matters perhaps as closely as other hon. Members who have been raising questions with me about them over quite a long period. I have indiciated to the House that there will be discussions. I think that for the right hon. Gentleman to raise this matter on this subject shows how out of order he is.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is time that some Members learned that workers have real problems? If they are discussing the question of manning levels, it is because they fear unemployment. All workers fear unemployment. Should not my right hon. Friend leave the matter to proper negotiation between the parties concerned rather than to hon. Members who suddenly become industrial experts when in essence most of them know nothing about industrial relations and never will?

Mr. Foot

This is not a question of unemployment. I fully accept what my hon. Friend said. I think that he is absolutely right about the way in which we should try to solve industrial disputes.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the four hon. Members who have been standing. Mr. Biffen.

Mr. Biffen

Is the Leader of the House aware that, as a consequence of this dispute the House is not in possession of the Division list of the Division which followed the debate on the nuclear reprocessing plant at Windscale? Will he make available in the Vote Office a typescript of that Division list, because it is of considerable interest not only within the House but to a wider public?

Mr. Foot

I shall certainly see what can be done to meet the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Skinner

Does my right hon. Friend take the view that I take, that, when these matters are raised, which is usually when printing difficulties arise, those outside who hear of these arguments will think that there is a whole set of parliamentary cry babies who complain the moment they get a little inconvenience? Would it not be fair to say that if Members of Parliament and Ministers decided to reform the House of Commons and got it on to a proper schedule, those who were providing the papers and the wherewithal would be able to produce those things much more easily?

Mr. Foot

I do not think that it is a question solely of inconvenience, although it is extremely inconvenient. It is also a question of how the House is to be best assisted in transacting its business in the interests of the whole nation. Therefore, we want to get a full, proper, permanent solution of the problem.

Mr. Rost

Is it not time that the Government realised that it is not so much a matter of the House being inconvenienced as of the effects on the country, our constituents and interested parties who want to follow what is going on in the House? Will the Leader of the House now put on record the Written Reply that he gave to me on Maundy Thursday, which unfortunately has not yet appeared because Hansard has not been printed, listing the appallingly long number of dates on which Hansard or official papers have not appeared in the House and showing the accelerating rate of disputes over the past four years?

Mr. Foot

There has been a considerable number of disputes over a number of years, as my hon. Friends have said. I believe that we have to try to solve those problems. I do not believe that we can solve them by some of the remedies that have been suggested today. But I believe that from the full discussions and the ACAS report we shall have a chance of approaching the matter in the most sensible way. I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman and others have said about this being a question not only of the convenience of Members of Parliament but of the proper transaction of our democratic processes.

Mr. Ridley

Is the Lord President aware that the record of disruption and non-delivery is no longer acceptable? Will he now call for tenders from private printers outside Her Majesty's Stationery Office for doing the work, with a one-year's contractual guarantee that they will deliver for the period ahead so that, if HMSO printers will not print for us, we shall use those who will?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that the House can judge for itself how helpful that contribution was. If we left these matters to the cool wisdom of the hon. Gentleman, we should not have any papers at all.

Mr. Pym

The Leader of the House has revealed that there is to be an important meeting tomorrow. Will he make a further statement on Wednesday and thereafter keep the House informed as to what is happening in this difficult dispute?

Mr. Foot

I shall endeavour to keep the House informed. I am not sure whether it would be best to make a statement on Wednesday, but I shall certainly consider the representations made by the right hon. Gentleman.