HC Deb 12 January 1978 vol 941 cc1853-9
Q2. Mr. Robinson

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his public engagements for 12th January.

Mr. Foot

I have been asked to reply.

Today my right hon. Friend is in Pakistan. He has a full programme of engagements including talks with General Zia.

Mr. Robinson

In the absence of the Prime Minister, will my right hon. Friend find time to have a word with the Chief Secretary about a very disappointing document, namely the Government's Expenditure Plan? Is he aware that this year we are spending 7 per cent. less in real terms than we were three years ago and that we shall not get back to the level of three years ago until 1980? Will he not reconsider the matter and see whether more resources can be created and made available because without them such crucial areas of the National Health Service may not survive?

Mr. Foot

I fully accept what my hon. Friend has said about the great public interest in and the importance of the matter he raises. Of course there will be full debate on this matter in the period leading up to the Budget. I am sure that the questions that my hon. Friend has raised will play a major part in all those discussions.

Mr. David Steel

Will the Lord President tell the House whether a copy of the Agricultural Review 1978 published this afternon has been sent to the Prime Minister for him to read on his travels? If it has, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Prime Minister to note that the White Paper claims that investment in agriculture was down last year as were incomes from agriculture? Will he take note that our view, at any rate, is that the green pound ought to be devalued by 10 per cent?

Mr. Foot

I am not sure that I shall be in charge of the supply of any special reading matter for the Prime Minister on his return journey. But, when we come to the announcement of business for the forthcoming period, the right hon. Gentleman and the House will find that there is a proposal for a debate on agriculture in the near future.

Mr. Michael Marshall

Will the Lord President come back to the question of the report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries on the British Steel Corporation? Will he please accept that this is an all-party report and will he tell the House clearly today that he undertakes to provide the two-day debate recommended by that Select Committee before there is a Government announcement, since that Select Committee has worked very hard to play a part in the national steel debate?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that the Select Committee has worked very hard, but, in deciding when debates take place, account has to be taken of a number of other factors, such as the other business before the House and the timing of the Government's own comments upon such a report. Normally, when a Select Committee of this character makes a report to the House, the Government consider it and make some comments upon it, and the House is then in full possession of the Government's views as well as the Select Committee's views on the subject. I think that that is the normal way to proceed and the best way to proceed.

Mr. William Hamilton

When the Prime Minister returns, will my right hon. Friend bring to his attention as a matter of great urgency the relationship between Government Departments and the Select Committees of this House? Is he not aware that I think a great majority of hon. Members on the Back Benches would regard it as an insult if Government Departments—and I know of at least three immediate cases where this has occurred—refused to divulge to Select Committees documents which they thought were relevant to our investigations? If that is to be a constant practice of the Government, the claim to have regard for open government is a nonsense.

Mr. Foot

I shall not comment on any of the instances to which my hon. Friend has referred until I have looked into them. But, in the case of the Select Committee on the nationalised steel industry, to which earlier reference was made, there was no complaint about the non-supply to that Committee of documents out of the ordinary. What the Government and the British Steel Corporation have done is to abide exactly by the normal conventions in this matter. There has been no breach of those conventions.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is not the Select Committee charged with the duty of making an objective assessment and reporting to the House? How can it do that if vital figures and facts are denied to it? This is a publicly-owned industry. Ought not the Select Committee to be in possession of the facts? Is it not the fact that Select Committees can withhold confidential information given to them, but that at least if they have had it they are in a position to make a proper assessment to the House of Commons, which is accountable to the people?

Mr. Foot

I may say to the right hon. Lady that in the case of the operation of this Select Committee no facts have been withheld that would normally be supplied to any comparable Select Committee. I repeat to the right hon. Lady, as she has raised this matter, that what the Government have done and what the British Steel Corporation has done is to apply exactly the previous conventions which have prevailed in this matter. If those conventions are to be altered, the House as a whole should consider the matter, and the House may well wish to take the advice of the Select Committee on Procedure which it has set up to look into exactly this question. I imagine that this is one of the subjects that the Committee is considering. It may well be that the House will wish to wait to hear what is said in that case.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Will the Lord President bear in mind that this Select Committee has now been in being for several years, so that if all information is to be made available, surely the operative date should be 1st January 1970 and not 1976? Then we could read the correspondence between Sir Monty Finniston and the then Secretary of State for Industry.

Mr. Rost

Why not?

Mr. Hughes

Will my right hon. Friend finally agree that perhaps at least Government supporters who serve on the Select Committee should be a bit more circumspect in their judgment in advocating works closures, especially when they allege that they are not in receipt of full information?

Mr. Foot

It is quite true that, if a fresh kind of information were to be made available to Select Committees, as is suggested by some, there is no reason why it should not go back for a great number of years. If that were to be the case—and some hon. Members, when that was suggested, asked "Why not?"—the answer is that that would be an entirely fresh way of dealing with these matters. If the House is to embark upon an entirely fresh way of dealing with Select Committees, I believe that it should do so not in relation to one Select Committee after it has sat but before Select Committees are established.

Q3. Mr. Wrigglesworth

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his public engagements for 12th January.

Mr. Foot

I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave earlier today to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson).

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Will my right hon. Friend take an opportunity today to look at the report on the front page of Sunday's Observer, and other Press reports, to the effect that decisions have been taken not to establish a new authority to organise the fourth television channel and also that the Government are thinking about establishing a new authority to run local radio? Will he tell us when the White Paper on these matters will be published? Further, is he aware that the majority of hon. Members are quite satisfield with local radio as it is run by the BBC and the IBA, and see no need for a new local broadcasting authority?

Mr. Foot

I cannot tell my hon. Friend and the House exactly when the White Paper will be published. No decisions such as were indicated in the report referred to have so far been taken by the Government.

Mr. Powell

Reverting to the Lord President's previous replies to supplementary questions on an identical reply is it not the case that if this House without restriction, gives to a Committee which it sets up the power to send for persons and papers, refusal of those persons to attend or to produce those papers is a contempt of this House?

Mr. Foot

It would be a contempt of this House if a motion had been passed by this House and that motion was not complied with. But the suggestion that a contempt of the House has been committed in this case because the British Steel Corporation and the Government abided exactly by the previous conventions of the House could not in any circumstances, or in any way, be described as contempt.

Mr. English

Although my right hon. Friend says that everybody abided by previous conventions, can he confirm that the Secretary of State for Industry was asked by the Committee to reveal this information and that he refused to do so?

Mr. Foot

I shall look into any such suggested exchange, but I have no doubt whatsoever from the investigations that I have already made—clearly this is a matter of considerable and natural interest to the House—that the Minister and the Secretary of State concerned abided exactly by the previous arrangements.

Mr. Burden

Answer the question.

Mr. Foot

I am answering the question which my hon. Friend put to me. The papers and answers to be supplied must, in my opinion, be governed by the previous understandings and arrangements, unless the House deliberately decides to change the whole system on which Select Committees should operate. There is a case for doing that. There is also a very powerful case against it.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Will the Lord President be prepared to try to fit in a meeting with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, since it has been established that the withdrawal of the regional employment premium has already cost 20,000 jobs in Scotland? As the trend of unemployment in Scotland is rising, against the trend elsewhere in the United Kingdom, will the Lord President hold discussions on the need to restore REP?

Mr. Foot

I understand the representations that were made from all over the country when the regional employment premium was removed. On the other hand, there was a great extension of the temporary employment subsidy. The right hon. Gentleman and others will find that considerably more jobs were saved by the extension of the temporary employment subsidy than were lost by the withdrawal of the regional employment premium.

Mr. Wigley

Will the Lord President convey to the Prime Minister the fact that many people have been dismayed to see, in today's expenditure White Paper, that the Government contemplate increasing defence expenditure by over £400 million at a time when they have no money for paying mobility allowance to those over 65, or extending the child benefit scheme?

Mr. Foot

As I said in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) earlier in the week, I believe that such public expenditure should be considered in all its aspects. I have no doubt that this will be part of the debate that takes place, both on public expenditure generally and on the defence White Paper itself.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does the Lord President recollect that on the Order Paper today he has a motion that seeks to have published the proceedings of the Select Committee that investigated the Crown Agents in 1973–74? Is he aware that, when it sees those documents, the House will learn that the Chairman of the Crown Agents refused to supply some information to that Select Committee? Does he feel that it is a happy precedent for Government Departments to refuse information to Select Committees, given what happened to the Crown Agents and the amount of public money that was lost?

Mr. Foot

What the House has decided to do on the question of the Crown Agents is to set up a tribunal to examine the matter afresh. However, if my hon. Friend is implying that any documents that are asked for should automatically be supplied to a Select Committee, I say that that would be a serious departure from the way in which Select Committees have previously operated. It would not just be dangerous to the Government; it would be extremely injurious to the rights of Back-Bench Members of Parliament. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Hon. Members should understand that Select Committees are responsible to the House, and other Back-Bench Members have rights, as well as those who sit on Select Committees.