HC Deb 08 December 1978 vol 959 cc1727-34
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a short business statement.

The business for Wednesday and Thursday next has been rearranged as follows:

WEDNESDAY 13TH DECEMBER—A debate on the Government's fight against inflation.

Motions on the EEC Documents R/ 2790/1/78 on the European monetary system and on R/3126/78 on its implications for the common agricultural policy.

THURSDAY 14TH DECEMBER—Motions on the rate support grant orders, on the Social Security (Contributions) (Mariners) Amendment Regulations and on the St. Lucia Termination of Association Order.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Lord President has gone some way towards meeting the legitimate demands of the Conservative Opposition. First, will he make plain what he proposes should happen on Wednesday? Is he proposing that a Government motion on general economic policy should be put down? If so, it will be the intention of the Conservative Opposition to put down an amendment to discuss what we want to discuss on that day—which is, in essence, our day—namely, the arbitrary and unjust use of sanctions against British industry.

Secondly, does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that to provide one day is not enough? What arrangements will he make to control members of his own party so that we do not have the shambles to which we were reduced last night by the failure of the Government to control their own party? I want to make clear to him that the view of the Conservative Opposition is that, if the Government are not prepared to govern, they should get out and make way for those who can.

Mr. Foot

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kindly reception of my proposal. Of course we are proposing that the Government will put down a motion. It will be a Government day and the Conservative Opposition will be free to put down any amendment which they wish, no doubt on the lines which the hon. Gentleman has suggested. That will be their choice, and they will have the normal facilities in that respect.

As to the question of controlling parties, these are phrases which I do not understand. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The Conservative Party seeks to control its Back Benchers, but does not always succeed. For instance, I remember the brilliant success it had a few weeks ago in controlling its members with regard to sanctions against Rhodesia. We might not have wished it to go in the way that it did, but what my hon. Friends did last night was to exercise their legitimate rights as Members of this House, and they should not be lectured by the hon. Gentleman on that account.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I accept the point which the Lord President has made about the importance of procedure. Does he agree that it is precisely because we have no written constitution in this country that procedure is so important? I agree with him that it is the right of Back Benchers to use the procedure of this House in a legitimate way. [HON. MEMBERS:"That is what we did last night."] Very well; I do not say anything about that.

However, does not this make it all the more vital that we should have a debate before Christmas on the report of the Select Committee on Procedure and, indeed, on the other eight reports which we have had no chance to debate? Do not the events of yesterday mean that it is essential for the House of Commons to have debates on these reports so that we can change the procedure if necessary so that hon. Members do not have to resort to the expedients to which they were forced to resort by our present procedure yesterday evening?

Mr. Foot

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgment that my hon. Friends did not behave improperly in any way and therefore there can be no question of anyone trying to control them in the sense in which he used the term. I fully acknowledge that the reports on procedure are extremely important. I know that Members on both sides of the House wish to discuss them.

We were thinking of having the debates on these subjects when we returned after the recess, and, of course, next week we shall have the debate on the recess motion. If the House wishes, we can return a few days earlier after Christmas and thus have a few more days available. If that commands the assent of the whole House, I shall be happy to move in that direction. It would mean that we could complete the remaining stages of the Public Lending Right Bill, to which the hon. Gentleman will no doubt give enthusiastic support, and that we could discuss some of the reports of the Select Committee on Procedure which we were intended in any case to discuss at an early date after our return.

I am glad to see this amity breaking out in the House, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for the courteous manner in which he has spoken after his strains of last night.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we all join in?

Mr. Speaker

Hon. Members may as usual ask questions after a business statement.

Mr. English

Does my right hon. Friend realise that we on the Back Benches have also lost a day? We were allowed to debate whether we could debate £ 23 billion of expenditure, but the motion was carried and precluded all debate on public expenditure itself. Will my right hon. Friend give Back Benchers a day on which to discuss public expenditure as well as replacing a Supply Day? Does he not agree that the whole convention of Supply Days rests on the assumption that public expenditure will never get discussed and that therefore we must do something to alter the present procedures?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case on these matters, about which he knows a great deal. It is true that we had discussions a year ago on whether we could make a fresh approach on this question. I had discussions with some of my hon. Friends on the matter. I said that I would look into it. I am prepared to see whether there is a different way in which we could proceed. I had thought in this instance that, since the defence budget was wholly concerned with the pay and pensions of the armed forces, it did not raise questions of principle, which of course can be fully discussed in the days that we shall have on defence matters when we return. But certainly one of the matters which will no doubt figure prominently in the procedure debates that we shall have when we return is the one to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Mr. Montgomery

Is it true that the Leader of the House promised the Tribune group that these Estimates would be debated and not taken on the nod? It so, why did he put them on the Order Paper for consideration yesterday? Did he not realise that the Left wing of the Labour Party could disrupt the business? Was there collusion between the Government and the Left wing?

Mr. Foot

I have already answered the hon. Gentleman's question. If he did not listen to my reply, I will not repeat it. Collusion means a guilty association, and there was no such thing. All my relations with my hon. Friends are innocent to the point of brilliant success.

Mr. Cohen

Will my right hon. Friend be a little more specific and outline clearly the Government's proposals for dealing with the completion of the Report stage of the Public Lending Right Bill?

Mr. Foot

When we return after the recess, I hope that we shall be able to get that Bill through as speedily as I think the House wishes. I do not know whether I can appeal to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) to control his Back Benchers, but I would hesitate to do so and I do not know whether he would be successful. The House has voted on this subject on numerous occasions. The Bill has been accepted on Second Reading by a huge majority on two or three occasions. We have a right, therefore, to try to get the Bill through the House, and if there is continued opposition in the way that there has been, we might have to consider a timetable motion.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend has misstated events. He said that the Bill was passed by a large majority. You, Mr. Speaker, will recollect that there was no Division.

Mr. Cormack

Will the right hon. Gentleman be a little clearer than he was in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery)? Did he or did he not give his hon. Friends an undertaking that certain debates would take place yesterday? It was clearly alleged by the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) and others yesterday that that was the case and that it was only because the right hon. Gentleman's undertaking had been breached that they were making a demonstration.

Mr. Foot

I had conversations with my hon. Friends a year ago when they raised this question, but it is not my recollection that I gave an undertaking that the situation would never occur again. However, some of them hold that that was what occurred. There is no written account of the conversations, but what I certainly did undertake to do was to look at the matter, and I undertake that now. I looked at the matters which were being debated yesterday and at the defence questions that were involved. If there had been a reply by the Government in yesterday's debate, some of these points could have been elaborated, but the House, in its wisdom, carried the closure before the Government could make a reply.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will consult fully not only the Cabinet but all his hon. Friends when it comes to the formulation of the motion to be put before the House on Wednesday? Will he recognise that he is not only Leader of the House of Commons but deputy-leader of the Labour Party and a member of its national executive, and therefore one of the custodians of decisions taken by the party's annual conference? Will he also recognise that, in the event of the Government being defeated on that motion before the House, it is likely that the Government would have to go to the country and campaign on a policy which would be diametrically opposed to that which constituted the motion?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that my hon. Friend and others will look at the motion carefully when it is tabled. Of course all these considerations are taken into account. The consultations that take place between my hon. Friends and the Government continue. Consultations were taking place yesterday while the debate went on. I assure my hon. Friends that these matters are taken into account. But the Government in the end have to take their responsibility for the motions they put down.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will the right hon. Gentleman reassure his hon. Friends that if they find the Government's motion disagreeable they may be helped by the terms of the Opposition's amendment?

Mr. Foot

We know how helpful the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen always are in these questions, and I am sure that if the hon. and learned Gentleman were to give some advice to them, they might approach these matters in an even more subtle spirit than they do at present.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call only those hon. Members who have already stood up, because this is a private Members' day.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the press, on radio and on television it was stated that the Opposition were thwarted last night by the Left wing of the Labour Party? Does he realise that, although I am regarded as being Left wing by the Right wing of my party, I am not a member of the Tribune group? Does he realise also that one would have to be cross-eyed to call my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) a member of the Left? Does he therefore—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is no time for confessions. We are discussing the business for next week

Mr. Tuck

Does not my right hon. Friend think that some correction should be made to these reports?

Mr. Foot

I cannot seek to correct the press on these matters, as I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates.

Mr. Moate

May I press the right hon. Gentleman further with regard to his extraordinary statement about a possible timetable motion on the Public Lending Right Bill? I remind him of the many occasions when, as a Back Bencher, he fought hard against timetable motions on a variety of Bills, saying that he regarded them almost as measures of dictatorship. Before he even contemplates such an extreme measure on the Bill, he need only encourage his own Back Benchers to remain in sufficient strength to get the Bill through. Any suggestion of a timetable motion should be resisted by the House as a whole.

Mr. Foot

I think that we should start with the hon. Gentleman's second proposition. We should bring the Bill back to the House after the recess to see whether we can get it through in the normal way. If the hon. Gentleman studies all my speeches on guillotine motions, he will see that never did I say that in no circumstances should there be a guillotine motion.

Mr. Heller

Will my right hon. Friend give us a little firmer instruction on the question of procedure debates? Is he aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have long wanted to be able to put down motions or amendments of their own on which they could vote without getting mixed up with the fantastic views of the Leader of the Opposition? Therefore, may we have the debate so that we can change our procedure to give hon. Members an opportunity not only to discuss their views but to express them in a vote?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend and others have put forward this proposition before, and it has been discussed by the Procedure Committee on certain occasions. But it has certain other consequences which have to be brought into the balance and can make much of the procedure of the House a good deal more cumbersome. Therefore, that point has to be taken into account. When we have the debates on procedure, we shall be able to discuss these matters as well.

Mr. Madden

Will the Lord President confirm that the indignation displayed by hon. Members on both sides yesterday was centred on Members' inability properly to discharge scrutiny of colossal sums of public expenditure? Will he undertake to have further discussions to ensure that the procedures of this place are so modified that we can discharge our primary responsibilities of scrutinising Government action and expenditure of very large sums of money on civil and defence matters?

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Hear, hear.

Mr. Foot

There is a strong case for what my hon. Friend has said. Indeed, it accords with the proposition which has often been put to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). I do not dissent about the need to look at all these matters.

On the question of defence, I should point out that the House has many opportunities for discussing many of the questions, including the question of principle, which were raised yesterday. Many of my hon. Friends are concerned about those questions. When we return, they will have several opportunities to discuss afresh many of those topics.

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