HC Deb 12 January 1978 vol 941 cc1859-78
Mrs. Thatcher

May I ask the Lord President to state the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 16TH JANUARY—Second Reading of the Civil Aviation Bill and of the Shipbuilding (Redundancy Payments) Bill.

TUESDAY 17TH JANUARY and WEDNESDAY 18TH JANUARY—Progress in Committee on the Scotland Bill.

At the end on Wednesday, motion on EEC Documents R/2962 and R/2963 of 1976 on Jurisdiction and Judgments Convention.

THURSDAY 19TH JANUARY—Second Reading of the Transport Bill.

Remaining stages of the Participation Agreements Bill.

FRIDAY 20TH JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 23RD JANUARY—Supply [4th Allotted Day]: There will be a debate on agriculture, on an Opposition motion.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I put two questions to the Lord President? The first concerns the Supply Day on agriculture, on Monday 23rd January. Will the Lord President make quite clear that we specifically asked to have this Supply Day next Thursday, so that the Minister could know the views of the House before he went to the EEC Ministers' meeting, which is on 23rd January? It is entirely the Government's fault that they have chosen to have that Supply Day on a day when the Minister is due to arrive in Europe. Will the right hon. Gentleman now reconsider the question of having it on the Thursday?

My second question refers back to the request of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries on steel. Does the Lord President recall that, in his reply a few moments ago, he used phrases such as "The House has a considerable and natural interest in the matter" and "When the House as a whole has considered the matter"? That would seem to imply that he is preparing to meet the Select Committee's request for a two-day debate. Will he confirm that that is so?

Mr. Foot

On the first question put by the right hon. Lady, there were some discussions about the date on which we should be able to have the Supply Day on Agriculture, for which the Opposition had asked. She is quite correct in that. The right hon. Lady is also correct in saying that she had asked for it to be on the previous Thursday. However, for the reasons that have been given we believed that it would be better to have it on the Monday. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Although I am prepared to consider the right hon. Lady's representations, I cannot say that we shall depart from what we have indicated. If I may now turn to the other matter—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There will be plenty of time for questions later.

Mr. Foot

I turn now to the right hon. Lady's second question. I was not suggesting that we should have a two-day debate on the proposal of the Select Committee for a debate on the provision of papers. Nor was I agreeing necessarily to a two-day debate on the subject at all. When the Government present their comment on the Select Committee's Report, there must, of course, be a debate in the House on such an important question. That, as the right hon. Lady well knows, is the normal way by which such a debate should take place. I believe that that is the way in which the House will have before it all the various views on the matter in the way in which they can be best considered. I still suggest that that is the best way to deal with it.

Mrs. Thatcher

That just will not do. I know that the Lord President is unduly on the defensive today, but he used to be a good House of Commons man. Constantly in his previous replies, he has referred to the House as having a natural interest in this matter. It has. We are accountable to the public for the losses of the steel industry. Is he saying that he refuses to find a day to debate the matter?

Mr. Foot

It is not that I refuse to propose a day for debating the general question of the steel industry. What I am saying to the right hon. Lady is that we should deal with the report of this Select Committee in the same way in which we deal with the reports of most Select Committees, and in the same way in which Select Committees were dealt with when they reported under previous Administrations. The normal way is for the Government to make a statement on the matter and for the debate to take place when the House has available both the report of the Select Committee and the Government's comments upon it.

Mr. Noble

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a great deal of anxiety in industry about the lack of a statement on the continuation of temporary employment subsidy? When may we expect a statement? May we expect the Government to say to the Common Market that we shall continue the subsidy?

Mr. Foot

This is a matter of great importance. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister underlined just before Christmas, we recognise that there are hon. Members throughout the country who have a deep interest in the maintenance of the temporary employment subsidy, because it sustains employment in the country, and we intend to put those views most forcefully in the Common Market and in all discussions that take place on the matter.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Is the Leader of the House aware that many of our constituents are becoming increasingly worried about Post Office policies and that it is high time that the House debated the recommendations of the Carter Report? Will he give an assurance that a debate will take place in the next month or so?

Mr. Foot

I cannot say that the debate will take place in the next month, although there are many different ways in which debates on general matters such as this can take place. Private Members and others can take the initiative if they wish.

Mrs. Castle

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Early-Day Motion No. 155, in my name and the names of a number of my hon. Friends, has now been signed by over 100 Members? Will he arrange for an early debate, both so that the important issues raised may be debated and so that I and the other signatories may have an opportunity of answering the misrepresentations and unwarranted attacks made upon us by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) in his extensive point of order yesterday?

[That this House calls upon the Lord Chancellor to remove from office Judge Neil Nairn McKinnon, Q.C.]

Mr. Foot

I fully agree with my right hon. Friend on the natural public interest that exists on the matter. I understand that the Lord Chancellor is to make a statement on the subject tomorrow, and I suggest that we might await that statement before we decide whether we should proceed later to a debate.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to discuss, through the usual channels, some method of debating the financial provisions contained in Part IV of the Scotland Bill, particularly Clauses 46, 47, 49 and 59, which cannot be debated in another place? Four significant groups of amendments were not discussed, quite apart from the clauses themselves. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has already said that the House has agreed the timetable, but could he, for once in his life, think and act not only as Lord President of the Council but as Leader of the House and remember the interests of minorities, of a large number of which in his past he has been a very significant member?

Mr. Foot

As I said in response to some questions by the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, the question of any rearrangement under the timetable can be raised at the Business Committee. If matters were to be raised through the usual channels I certainly should not block any such discussions because the usual channels are there precisely to have discussions. But I could not go beyond the undertakings that I gave at the beginning of the debate yesterday.

Mr. Strauss

Will my right hon. Friend tell us when there is likely to be a chance to discuss the report of the Committee of Privileges, presented in June, which proposes important changes in the procedure of that Committee and the principles on which it operates, and of which my right hon. Friend, as a member of that Committee, fully realises the urgency? Can he now tell us whether there is any likelihood of having such a debate in the near future?

Mr. Foot

I am extremely apologetic to my right hon. Friend but I cannot give him an exact date. I fully accept what he says about the desirability of the House having a chance to discuss that report and acting upon its recommendations. I certainly believe that it would be a great improvement in the way in which we deal with privilege matters if we were able to do so. I shall certainly look out for an early opportunity of having a debate.

Sir David Renton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is very strong feeling in farming constituencies about the present agricultural position? Would he therefore deal further with the request made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about the timing of the agriculture debate? Is it not most unsatisfactory that the Minister should not only go to Brussels without knowing our views but be in Brussels while our views are being expressed here?

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his proposal that we should discuss an EEC document starting after the fall of the guillotine on the Scotland Bill next Wednesday night? In effect, it means that we may not get on to that question until about 11.30 p.m., which is the time at which those late debates normally end.

Mr. Foot

Dealing with the second supplementary question put to me by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have acknowledged on many occasions the inconvenience that arises from having these debates at such a late hour. But at the moment we have not found a way of avoiding it. I am afraid that on that occasion we shall not be able to do so either.

Turning to the first supplementary question put to me by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in view of the representations that were made by the Opposition in the discussions that we had about this matter, my right hon. Friend, on representations that I made to him, has made special arrangements to return for the debate on Monday. In view of that arrangement, it is a little ungenerous that it should be said that we are not seeking to meet the proposals that were put to us.

Mr. Skinner

Could we have a debate on another aspect of the pouring out of large sums of Government money? I refer to the so-called private enterprise sector of our evonomy which receives about £11 million a day, which makes the amount going to the steel industry pale into insignificance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the job of a Labour Member of Parliament is not to come to this House of Commons and rush to the nearest Select Committee to join forces with the Tories to attack the nationalised industries? Does he not agree that it is the job of a Labour Member of Parliament to save the jobs of steel men up and down the country, since they are the same people who sent us to this House of Commons? Does he not also agree that in that debate we might mention the rôle of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) who talks about contempt of Select Committees when he refuses to sign a register of Members' interests?

Mr. Foot

I say to my hon. Friend, although I must underline that I am selective in the matter, that I very often do agree with him. However, I believe that when we have this important debate on the steel industry as a whole, concerning the jobs of many people up and down the country and the future of a great British industry, the House should have available to it the information, evidence and views of all sections, including the Government. To have a debate beforehand would not only be a departure from previous arrangements but a very poor way of dealing with a great industry.

Mr. Blaker

If the Minister of Agriculture is prepared to return for the agriculture debate on Monday, will he not miss the meeting of Ministers? Why cannot we have the debate on Thursday?

Mr. Foot

My right hon. Friend thought it more important to be in the House of Commons than in Brussels. That is why he will be here.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's proposals on public expenditure announced today and the economic strategy on which they are based do not even begin to deal with the indefensible level of unemployment in today's society, which has nothing to do with Socialist measures but is an indictment of our capitalist system? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that we are most concerned that, while the amount spent on defence in 1980–81 will be far greater than in the mid-I970s, expenditure on education, housing and other important parts of the social wage will not increase? Will he therefore allow us to have an early debate on the public expenditure White Paper?

Mr. Foot

As I said in reply to my hon. Friend earlier, I recognise the major importance of these themes in our debates, particularly leading up to the Budget. Of course, the House of Commons will have full opportunity for these discussions.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. About 30 or 40 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I hope that we may have brief questions so that more hon. Members may be called.

Mr. Grimond

In view of the widespread anxiety about the value of the green pound, will the Leader of the House assure us that the Minister of Agriculture will be in possession of the views of the House when this matter is discussed in Brussels? Secondly will he not only listen to representations about the Scotland Bill but take some notice of them, because, from the point of view of both the country and the House, it is essential, in view of recent developments, that we have more time to discuss that Bill?

Mr. Foot

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, the House of Commons has every right to put its views to the Minister of Agriculture on this subject, and no one can say that full opportunities have not been provided for that to happen. I am sure that that will happen on this occasion, too, and that the House will take the fullest opportunity to put its views to the Minister who will reply for the Government.

On the second matter, the right hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Party voted for the timetable motion, and the day before yesterday representations were made for the alteration of the calling of the amendments. The Chair accepted the view of the Committee on the subject, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State readily acceded to desires in that respect. A debate therefore took place on the terms requested by members of the Committee. I do not believe that those good grounds for saying that the debate on the timetable motion should be reopened.

Mr. Jay

Has my right hon. Friend seen the important Leitch Report on road traffic forecasts? As the Minister of Transport gave this report to the Press without making any statement in the House, may we have an early chance to debate it?

Mr. Foot

There is to be Second Reading of the Transport Bill next Thursday, and many aspects of the matter can then be raised. I am not excluding the possibility of some later debate on transport, although that might have to be raised in another way.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Does the Leader of the House take the view that debates in this House ought to have some influence on ministerial action? If so, why does not the Minister of Agriculture come to the House for a debate on Thursday and go to Brussels on Monday instead of choosing between the two? Why does he not come here first?

Mr. Foot

When representations were made to us about this debate, we indicated the reasons—[Interruption.] We also said that if the Opposition wanted the debate on Monday, arrangements would be made for the Minister of Agriculture to be here. That is what will happen. I think that my right hon. Friend and the rest of us deserve a vote of thanks rather than the censure of the Opposition.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the preservation in large part of the British Steel Corporation's investment programme and redundancy only by agreement with the trade unions are cornerstones of the Select Committee's report? Will he give us some idea when a debate is likely to take place as a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that the time for the House to debate this matter is before, rather than after, the Government make up their mind?

Mr. Foot

The Government have every right, as do hon. Members in all parts of the House, to make up their mind upon the recommendations and views put forward by the Select Committee, and I believe that it will be a much more effective debate if we abide by that procedure. Also, the House will have had a greater opportunity to take account of some of the representations by the trade unions, and I recommend that to my hon. Friend as well.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the question of the Supply Day? Will he see whether it is impossible to accommodate what appears to be a sensible view—one that was put to the House some while ago by the Procedure Committee that was dealing with European matters in general—that the debate should take place with the Minister here on Thursday? The Minister can then go, in a civilised manner, to Brussels on Monday, knowing the view of the House and able to vote accordingly.

Mr. Foot

I have answered that point. The Minister of Agriculture will be here on Monday and he will answer the debate in a civilised manner. I believe that, when it hears the debate, the House will think that that is the best way to proceed.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

In preparing the response to the Select Committee's report on the steel industry, will my right hon. Friend take into account that we on this side are more concerned about the protection of jobs than about the production of documents, and we believe firmly that that function is better served by the Secretary of State and the Government than by an all-party Select Committee?

Mr. Foot

That is certainly a view that can be held strongly in parts of the House, and I think that it has to be taken into account. It is an illustration of what I said before, that this is a question of the rights of Members in all parts of the House. Members who represent steel constituencies, for example, have considerable rights in this matter and considerable rights to make representations. Those have to be taken into account as well as the rights of the Select Committee and the House to debate the matter in accordance with normal previous practice.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Can the Lord President say why the Transport Bill, which is to be taken next Thursday, is so much more important than giving the Minister of Agriculture an opportunity—on the very day that he is to answer Questions—to be here in the House to hear the views of hon. Members before he goes to Brussels? He ought to be here anyway as he has to deal with Questions. Second, to avoid doubt, since he now has a request from a Committee of the House that it ought to be given information, will the right hon. Gentleman, as Leader of the House, say positively whether he is prepared to make time for a debate not on the steel industry but on the specific request of that Committee?

Mr. Foot

I have already answered the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I have answered it about four times. On the second question, I believe that the motion of the Committee and the proposal made by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), supported by some hon. Members, raises far-reaching questions. The House should ponder upon those matters for a while. Perhaps, as I said earlier—though I do not know whether the House will agree—we should await the views and recommendations of the Procedure Committee, which is studying procedure generally, because this does raise important questions. If we were to agree to the proposition made by the Select Committee, it would not merely affect the operation of that Select Committee but it would affect the whole relationship—[HON. MEMBERS: "That is right."] Hon. Members opposite confirm what I say. If that is the case, and if a new principle is therefore to be introduced, it should be done in the light of not merely this particular case but the whole general case as well. I am most grateful to hon. Gentlemen who interrupted me to say that that is what they want, because I am helping to accommodate them.

Mr. Amery

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Lord President said three times that he was not prepared to switch the debate from Thursday to Monday, for reasons which he had explained. Is it proper for the Lord President to refer three times to private explanations without taking the House into his confidence and telling us what they are?

Mr. Speaker

The Lord President takes responsibility for his own statements.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Will the Lord President bear in mind that the determination of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries is to try to build up a strong, viable and healthy steel industry? If we do not do that, it will be no use talking about the unemployment that will be caused by carrying on as we are now. We shall have greater unemployment because of the impact that a weak industry will have on the economy as a whole. Therefore, we should be more determined to have a debate on this important industry and we should be more determined to make sure that we get the information for such a Committee. If it is so confidential—I am waiting to hear from my right hon. Friend why it is so confidential—we shall be able to judge. But it is essential that we have a debate as soon as possible to try to clear the air if we do not, there are bound to be recriminations.

Mr. Foot

I certainly welcome what my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his remarks about the view of the Select Committee on the steel industry as a whole. There are two questions: one is the question of the steel industry as a whole, and I believe that it is much better that the House should be in possession of the Government's views before we have the debate.

The second question of procedure raises much wider issues than those which may apply to this Select Committee and this particular case. That should be looked at much more carefully before people rush in to say that that is the proper way to proceed. I believe that if we were to adopt the view that my hon. Friend suggests, it would be extremely injurious to large numbers of Back-Bench Members.

Mr. Gow

Will the Lord President reconsider the Government's decision to put into a single Statutory Instrument, with other matters, their proposals for the compulsory wearing of seat belts in Northern Ireland? Will he please reconsider that, because there is strong feeling about it in all parts of the House?

Mr. Foot

As I was not present during the whole of Question Time this afternoon. I do not know whether the matter was raised then with my right hon. Friend. If some representations were put, I shall look at any questions that were raised, but I cannot give an undertaking to the hon. Gentleman now.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Can representations be made to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come to the House next week to make a statement on the proposals made by the Commission in relation to the common fisheries policy? Since there is an almost unanimous view in the House about the crucial nature of these proposals, is it possible for the House to debate and approve or reject them before final acceptance is given?

Mr. Foot

I agree that the House of Commons is bound to have deep concern on the whole of this question, but my hon. Friend will be the first to agree that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has been a very strong defender of British interests in this matter. Certainly, he intends to continue in that rôle.

Mr. Biffen

What are the considerations which persuade the Leader of the House that it is more appropriate to have a debate on agriculture on Monday week rather than on Thursday?

Mr. Foot

I have told the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—of our approach to the matter. When it was represented to us that there should be a debate, and the debate was to be on the Monday, I said that we should do our best to ensure that the Minister of Agriculture was there for the debate, and we have complied with that.

Mr. Spearing

Has my right hon. Friend seen Early-Day Motion No. 156? This is a Prayer against Statutory Instrument No. 2053, which annuls a good deal of the agricultural legislation and removes the guaranteed milk price for farmers. Is my right hon. Friend aware that this Prayer is supported also by the Liberal Party? Is he also aware that, as this is an order under the negative procedure and does not need the approval of the House, it removes important agricultural legislation at a stroke, and does so under the European Communities Act? If we have a debate, would it not be appropriate for the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) to be here in order to account for this disgraceful constitutional situation?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Common Agricultural Policy (Termination of Guarantee Arrangements) (Milk) Order 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 2053), dated 8th December 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th December, be annulled.]

Mr. Foot

I shall gladly consider arrangements for such a debate, although it would have to be in Standing Committee.

Mr. Cormack

Will the Lord President now, without any evasion, tell us why we cannot debate agriculture next Thursday? What are the reasons?

Mr. Foot

I have already tried on a number of occasions to answer that. I made proposals about what we should debate next week. There was a proposal from the Opposition that we should have a Supply Day and that we should have a Supply Day debate on agriculture. When it appeared that Monday was to be the day, it was clearly necessary that we should ensure that the Minister of Agriculture was here for that debate, and that will be the position.

Mr. Greville Janner

Does my right hon. Friend intend to bring the late-lamented Employment Protection Bill back before the House? As the Joint Committee on Consolidation has brought some order into the chaotic state of the law and, as it is only a consolidation measure, can that be done soon?

Mr. Foot

I doubt whether that would be feasible. But, as my hon. and learned Friend knows, on some aspects of the Employment Protection Bill there are two important Private Members' Bills that will be considered by the House.

Mr. Tapsell

Is the Leader of the House aware that I have no knowledge of any private explanations that he may have given through the usual channels of the otherwise apparently extraordinary choice of Monday 23rd January as the first possible date on which the agriculture debate can be held? But commentators outside the House will inevitably deduce that the reason for that decision is that the Government have at long last decided to seek permission to devalue the green pound, and that the Minister, therefore, wishes to get the permission of his fellow Ministers in Brussels on that morning before coming to the debate here in the afternoon. If that is the case, would it not be better for the Leader of the House to give the reason frankly now?

Mr. Foot

I will say to the hon. Gentleman, so that there is no misunderstanding, that I am not invoking as any defence of my position in this matter any discussions that may have occurred with the usual channels. I am not doing so and I have never sought to do so in my remarks. What I have indicated is the suggestions that were made by the Government. I believe that the proposals we have made for the debate will ensure that the House of Commons has the fullest opportunity to make its views known on these matters to the Minister and the Government in the best way possible. That is our view and it is what we suggest.

Mr. Corbett

Will my right hon. Friend say whether it will be possible to have sound broadcasting of the proceedings of the House next week? If not, why not? What is the hold-up? When will it happen, and does he recall that the House has taken a decision that this should happen?

Mr. Foot

I quite agree with my hon. Friend. I think we should get a move on about it. I should like to have it in operation. There was some hold-up, which we are still seeking to overcome, and we shall do our best to bring it into operation at an early date.

Mr. Farr

Still on the subject of agriculture, is the Leader of the House aware that in the past two or three weeks the situation of certain commodity producers has deteriorated seriously? Another interpretation of our not having the debate on Thursday is that possibly the Minister either wants to avoid answering these questions or, alternatively, deliberately wishes not to be present to answer the questions, and wishes, instead, to go to Brussels and play some role there. Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the matter again and adopt the obvious course, in view of the transcendent wish of the whole House that the debate should be before the Minister goes to Brussels—and not afterwards—so that he may be acquainted with the new problems that have recently arisen in the industry?

Mr. Foot

I acknowledge fully the important agricultural questions which hon. Members in all parts of the House wish to put to my right hon. Friend. But any suggestion from any quarter that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food seeks to dodge questions on this matter is absurd. No Minister could have been more forthcoming on these matters and no Minister could have been a better defender of British interests in Brussels. Anyone who voted for entry into the Common Market on the terms accepted by the previous Administration should learn to keep his mouth shut on this subject.

Mr. Newens

In view of the deep concern felt on both sides of the House about the proposal to sell £850,000 worth of defence equipment to El Salvador and the possibility that this could, in certain circumstances, be used against British troops defending Belize or against people demanding elementary human rights, will my right hon. Friend consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs with a view to bringing this matter before the House so that a decision can be taken here before shipment takes place?

Mr. Foot

As my hon. Friend is fully aware, in response to questions both from him and from Tory Members and after hon. Members had signed a motion on the Order Paper, I promised that I would look afresh at this matter, although I said that I could not give any undertaking that there would be a departure from what was said on behalf of the Government before Christmas. I repeat what I said earlier in the week.

Mr. Pym

Does the Leader of the House appreciate—he must, after this exchange—that there is a strong desire in all parts of the House for the Government to provide time to debate the question whether certain papers should have been provided to a Select Committee? The House wishes to discuss this matter and reach a conclusion about it, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman must be aware. Will he provide time?

Turning to the important question of the debate next Thursday or Monday week, the right hon. Gentleman said in his initial supplementary reply that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food thought it more important to be in the House of Commons on 23rd January than in Brussels. Is it not equally important for him to be in the House next Thursday? In any case, will the right hon. Gentleman not be in the House to answer agriculture Questions? Does the Leader of the House appreciate that he has created a great mystery why the Minister will not take part in such a on agriculture on Thursday? He has given no indication whatsoever why the Minister will not take part in such a debate. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is our strong view that it would be right and proper to hold the debate on that day, so that on the following Monday the Minister can go to the ministerial meeting in the ordinary way? The right hon. Gentleman has not in any sense answered the questions put from the Conservative Benches as to why that cannot happen.

Mr. Foot

What I have answered—[Hon. Members: "No."] What I have answered are the representations made by the Conservative Party concerning the arrangement of debates. When it was proposed that there should be a debate on the Monday we made arrangements for the Minister of Agriculture to be there, fulfilling what I said about the Minister's belief that it was more important to be here than in Brussels.

As for the first issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises, I believe that the House should consider the matter further before we decide whether to have a debate on the aspect of the question tabled by the Select Committee. To have the debate solely on the question referring to this particular Select Committee might be the wrong way to do it, because the precedent which would be set in some particular circumstances would later reach very much further. Tory Members might consider that, too.

Moreover, I believe that those who wish to consider the matter might then be able to consider whether it is not the fact—as I am sure it is—that what we have done, and what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry has done, in this case is in exact accordance with the way in which Select Committees have been treated in the past. The right hon. Gentleman would serve the interests of the House if he acknowledged that.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have spent 38 minutes on business questions. I propose to allow three more minutes on them. Then we shall move on.

Mr. Molloy

Notwithstanding the many grave and serious issues that we have recently been discussing, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that many thousands of ordinary people in this country have a serious issue on their minds at this moment because they have lost their homes or had them savagely damaged as a result of the floods and storms? Is he further aware that while legislation passed by this House gives local authorities powers to assist such people, some local authorities do so but other local authorities, such as the GLC, could not care less? Would my right hon. Friend agree that it is absurd that people living in one part of the country can get assistance because of the damage, strain and worry caused by disasters yet those living in another part of the country, controlled by, for example, a Tory GLC, receive no help whatever? Ought not my right hon. Friend to find time for a debate on that legislation as quickly as possible?

Mr. Foot

I do not know whether we can debate the legislation, but I fully agree with my hon. Friend that these are important questions about which, I am sure, hon. Members in different parts of the House whose constituencies have been affected by the storms and tragedies of the past 24 hours will make representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and perhaps to other Ministers. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the question.

Mr. Wigley

Will the Leader of the House say when he expects the Wales Bill to start its Committee stage and, if it is the case that it has to await the end of the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill, can he give us an assurance that the Wales Bill will start its Committee stage before the House begins the Report stage of the Scotland Bill?

Mr. Foot

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance about the timetable. I do not believe that that would necessarily serve the interests of anyone. I do give him the assurance that we are determined to proceed with the Wales Bill. As we have said throughout, we are determined that that Bill shall go through in this Session, like the Scotland Bill. Therefore, I do not believe that the interests of the people in Wales will be in any way affected by any delay—not that I foresee any delay. I am sure that we shall have the co-operation of the hon. Gentleman in ensuring that we do not.

Mr. John Mendelson

Since the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) claimed to speak for the whole of the House when he was pressing my right hon. Friend about the matter of the Select Committee report, may I ask the Leader of the House to accept that there will be many hon. Members—at any rate, on the Government side of the House—representing steel constituencies who will want to hear from the Secretary of State for Industry, who has conducted himself in the most responsible manner to protect the interests of the industry and the people who work in it? Does he appreciate that we do not want to hear speeches on other subjects by those Tories who are traditionally asking for more redundancies in the industry? Does the Leader of the House accept that those hon. Members who are interested in procedure will want this matter to be considered as a matter of principle, probably by the appropriate Committee, before rushing into debate?

Mr. Foot

I certainly hope that what my hon. Friend has said will be fully weighed by all hon. Members, including the Tory Front Bench.

Mr. George Cunningham

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In these many exchanges about the rights of a Select Committee to call for documents you will have heard the Lord President state as his opinion—I presume it can be only his opinion—that it is not a contempt for documents not to be provided, to be refused, when a Select Committee has asked for them.

I think we all understand, Mr. Speaker, that, even if it is a contempt to refuse such documents, the remedy can he only with the House under present procedure and not with the Committee itself. But I had always understood that, though the remedy lies with the House and the House does not need to impose any penalty at all, it is a contempt for any person to refuse to comply with a formal order—and I do mean a formal order, not an informal request—from a Select Committee. That view seems to be supported by pages 644 and 645 of "Erskine May".

If this matter is to be looked at by a Select Committee of the House on procedure—and I do not think it is surprising to the House that it is being looked at by a Committee of the House at the moment—the right starting point is to know whether it is, in fact, a contempt for such a refusal to be made. May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, not to rule on the point now but to consider it—and not to rule on it tomorrow either, because that would be very inconvenient to many of us? May I ask you to rule on the matter next week and say whether it is a contempt or is not, or whether the point is obscure?

Mr. Higgins

Further to that point of order Mr. Speaker. The Lord President is taking it upon himself to interpret a resolution of this House, which says that a Select Committee may send for persons and papers, to mean that it may send for some persons and some papers. I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether in the light of what has just been said, you will, perhaps be kind enough to take that point into account also and to rule on it.

Mr. Michael Marshall

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it not be for the convenience of the House if the Lord President perhaps reconsidered this matter and made his submissions to you, because Early-Day Motion No. 166 seems to be the way in which we can air this matter and try to decide whether it is a matter of privilege.

[That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid forthwith before this House by the Secretary of State for Industry a return of all papers relating to the future prospects for the British Steel Corporation which have been submitted to him by the Corporation and to the Corporation by him since 1st January 1976.]

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) for his suggestion that I take good time to consider this matter. I shall, therefore, make a statement early next week.