HC Deb 08 June 1978 vol 951 cc366-81
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 12TH JUNE—Supply [19th Allotted Day]: debate on the First Report from the Expenditure Committee, Session 1976–77, "Preventive Medicine", House of Commons Paper No. 169, and the Government's observations, Command No. 7047.

TUESDAY 13TH JUNE—Remaining stages of the State Immunity Bill [Lords] Bill and of the Community Service by Offenders (Scotland) Bill.

Proceedings on the Tuvalu Bill [Lords], and on the Export Guarantees and Overseas Investment Bill [Lords] and the Oaths Bill [Lords], which are consolidation measures.

Motion on EEC documents R/95/76 and R/467/78 on non-life assurance.

WEDNESDAY 14TH JUNE—Supply [20th Allotted Day]: until about 7 o'clock, a debate on fishing, followed by a debate on the Official Secrets Act.

THURSDAY 15TH JUNE—Supply [21st Allotted Day]: debate on the Royal Navy, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 16TH JUNE—Debate on reports from the Select Committee on Violence in the Family, House of Commons Papers Nos. 553 and 329, and the Government observations, Command Nos. 6690 and 7123.

MONDAY 19TH JUNE—Supply [22nd Allotted Day]: the subject for debate to be announced.

Mrs. Thatcher

The Lord President will be aware that earlier today I put through a specific request to the Prime Minister's Office for the financial changes to be announced in the House of Commons in the usual way. That request was specifically refused, and the Chancellor and the Prime Minister chose not to make their announcements to this House. The business for next week was arranged before we knew about that statement. When may we have a full economic debate upon what the Chancellor has proposed outside the House?

Mr. Foot

What the Government have proposed, what was said in the reply sent to the right hon. Lady, and what the Prime Minister said a few moments ago is that of course these proposals by the Government will be discussed in the House in the normal fashion. It is misleading for the right hon. Lady to try to give the impression that there is something abnormal about debating amendments to the Finance Bill in the time that is normally provided. The right hon. Lady has made a wrong suggestion. We debate these matters on the Finance Bill. She and her party propose amendments. The Government will put forward their proposals on the Bill according to the normal provisions.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that under a Labour Government it is abnormal to expect a financial statement to be made in the House of Commons?

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Lady is quite wrong in the matter. When a Finance Bill is before the House and when amendments are carried in Committee which the Government may wish to seek to alter, the normal House of Commons time for doing so is on Report.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been a complete breakdown between the steel committee of the TUC and the British Steel Corporation in the talks over the future of the Shelton works, among other matters? Can he say whether his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry will be coming to the House next week to announce Government intervention in the tripartite agreement to get the discussions moving again and people talking to one another?

Mr. Foot

I have read the reports on the subject to which my hon. Friend refers. I certainly recognise the importance of this matter. I cannot say whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry will make a statement next week, but I shall certainly discuss with him the issue which my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Powell

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall saying a fortnight ago that it would be of great help to the House if, at a reasonably early date, there were a debate on the past and future consequences of New Commonwealth immigration? If opportunities for this debate are not afforded by the official Opposition, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to see that before long a day is fixed by the Government?

Mr. Foot

I shall consider the proposal from the right hon. Gentleman and from others. Many hon. Members thought that it might be for the Opposition to select such a subject. The Opposition have selected the subjects that they wish to debate next Wednesday and I am much too good-natured a person to criticise what they have done.

Mr. Spriggs

Will my right hon. Friend consider providing time for an early debate about the proposals of the Church Commissioners to increase house rents on property belonging to them by up to £900 a year?

Mr. Foot

I do not know whether we can have an early debate on the matter but I shall certainly look into this question.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Since the Government are in difficulty about finding enough business to bring to the Floor of the House, why do they not introduce a shortened Merchant Shipping Bill, which would receive all-party support, so that Britain can sign the conventions to prevent collisions and pollution at sea? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the absence of a new Merchant Shipping Act we cannot sign the conventions? Why will the Government not do this?

Mr. Foot

I fully accept that we should like to bring before the House a Merchant Shipping Bill. The Bill has been fully prepared by the Government for presentation to the House. The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in thinking that the Government have difficulty about the legislation to bring before the House. We have a great deal of legislation to get through the House before the end of this Session. It seems that it is the Opposition who have difficulty in deciding on which matters to bring before the House.

Mrs. Renée Short

With regard to Monday's debate on the Expenditure Committee's Report, may I ask my right hon. Friend to tell the House how many speakers we are likely to have from the Government Front Bench during that debate? If there are to be two, does my right hon. Friend appreciate that that will reduce the time available to Back Benchers? As there are likely to be a large number of Back Benchers who want to take part in this important debate, for which we have waited so long, will my right hon. Friend tell us whether he is prepared to reduce the number of Front-Bench speakers?

Mr. Foot

I recognise my hon. Friend's interest in this matter, even though she did not declare it herself. I believe that she will have every opportunity of introducing the debate. I shall represent to my right hon. and hon. Friends the representations which she makes, very altruistically, on behalf of her other hon. Friends, to ensure that there is adequate time for them.

Sir David Renton

The right hon. Gentleman said in answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that the right time for the Government to bring forward their further proposals on the Finance Bill was on Report. I respectfully agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Will he, therefore, explain why it is—and what justification there was for it—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, well in advance of the Report stage, made such a statement outside the House? What precedent and what justification are there for that?

Mr. Foot

It is often the case that Government Departments make statements on their approach to these matters. It is not the case that it is necessary or usual for Goverment statements always to be made in the House about future proposals that are to be put down on Bills which are currently passing through the House. What the Government are doing in this respect is absolutely normal. It is quite wrong for anyone, including the right hon. Lady, to try to give an opposite impression to the country. I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for correcting the matter.

Mr. Hooley

Has my right hon. Friend seen the Early-Day Motion asking that the House be informed 10 days in advance of the business it is proposed to transact instead of six as at present? This would be at least some concession to the interests of Back Benchers, which have been pretty thoroughly ignored in the past few years.

[That this House requests that the weekly statement of Business by the Leader of the House should in future include the Business for two weeks.]

Mr. Foot

That proposition has been put on a number of occasions. I am doubtful whether it would entirely be for the benefit of the House as a whole and of Back Benchers if that were done. It would also make the programme much more cut and dried. Therefore, I am doubtful whether it is a wise suggestion. However, as much as possible we try to give indications to the House of how it is to proceed at a later date. As it is the House now gets longer notice than it was given many years ago.

Mr. Amery

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the present foreign affairs debate, rightly, has been mainly concerned with East-West and Third world problems. Will he assure the House that there will be an opportunity to discuss international economic and financial problems before the Summit meeting in July?

Mr. Foot

I cannot promise a debate before then, but I shall take into account the right hon. Gentleman's representations, as well as the representations of others.

Mr. Thorne

Will the Leader of the House, who is well known for his libertarian views, seek to arrange a debate on the deportation of Mrs. Saroj Khullar, which has now been confirmed by the Home Secretary and which illustrates his own lack of compassion in this situation?

Mr. Foot

I do not accept what my hon. Friend says about the Home Secretary. A day or two ago, my hon Friend sought to use one parliamentary means of raising the matter. I have no doubt that there are other parliamentary opportunities which he can use to try to raise it.

Sir Bernard Braine

In view of today's reminder in the current issue of the consumer magazine "Which?" that the drink and driving laws of this country are being broken on a huge scale, and that this is a major factor in the continuing and tragic loss of life and limb on the roads, will the Government now find time to debate the sensible proposals of the Blennerhassett Report, which have lain far too long without any regard being paid to their importance and relevance?

Mr. Foot

I do not seek to pass judgment on the importance of the report. I agree that it is an important report which, along with others, we are seeking to give time to discuss. I cannot give an early promise to the hon. Gentleman with regard to this report.

Mr. Faulds

Is there not a conceivable way in which my right hon. Friend can get the Stationery Office to pull out its finger and get those three missing copies of Hansard printed before we all disappear into the Summer Recess?

Mr. Foot

I shall see what we can do in that direction. I appreciate the inconvenience to the House. We are seeking to overcome it.

Sir Frederic Bennett

I return to the explanation given by the Leader of the House why we are not having a statement on economic affairs. He has given as his reason that we can discuss these on Report. At what part of the Report stage can we refer to the drastic increase in the lending rate and the new credit restrictions? Under which clause shall we be able to do that?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that the rest of the House was aware, even if the hon. Gentleman was not, that I was referring to the proposals—which certainly can be covered by the Finance Bill—for the increase in the national insurance rates. There are various opportunities for the House to discuss these other matters. Previously we have had increases or decreases in the minimum lending rate without any demand from the Opposition or anyone else to have any debates at all. Therefore, what we are doing is no novelty, and no such impression should be given to people outside the House.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Given the fact that thousands of young people will be leaving school in the next few weeks on Merseyside and Knowsley, and the fact that a large proportion face the very bleak prospect of going straight on to the dole, will the Lord President arrange an early debate about economic prospects on Merseyside so that we can hear what new and additional proposals the Government have for that area?

Mr. Foot

Like my hon. Friend, and others of my hon. Friends from Merseyside, we recognise the importance of this problem. We also recognise the importance of the proposals which have been made by the Department of Employment and which will come into operation this year to assist with that part of the problem. I do not say that they will solve the problem, but they are a major contribution. I shall bear in mind the requests that have been made by my hon. Friends for a debate on these subjects as they affect the regions. I am not quite sure what is the best way to have that debate, but I am fully aware of the representations that my hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and others from Liverpool have made.

Mr. Hordern

Since the measures announced today involved a good deal more than the simple raising of revenue, and since the Labour Government's economic panic measures are generally announced in July rather than in June, should not the House be given the opportunity to debate these measures and the state of the economy next week instead of next month?

Mr. Foot

If they had wished, the Opposition could have chosen to use a Supply Day for these matters. I am not criticising them. I think that they have chosen very wisely. I thought they believed that there was a crisis. If there was a crisis, they could have had a debate. But perhaps they did not think there was a crisis, and all they want now is to have a debate on these particular measures. These measures will be debated according to the normal provisions of the House of Commons.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Will my right hon. Friend spell out to the Leader of the Opposition that she has the power to select the subject for debate on the 19th of this month? Will he now call upon her to get to her feet and say that we shall have a debate on the economic situation? We know that the action taken today constitutes consequential amendments to the action taken by the Opposition during the Budget debate. We on this side would welcome such a debate.

Mr. Foot

I am sure that my hon. Friend is trying to help. I do not know whether I can assist him, but these are matters for the Opposition to decide.

Mr. Higgins

Can the Leader of the House tell us of any other occasion when it has been necessary for the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary all to back him up during questions about business next week? Is it not the case that the measures which the Government have now proposed go far beyond anything necessary to offset the defeats on the Finance Bill? Is is not further the case that two out of those three measures at least will be out of order for discussion on the Finance Bill? The initial answer of the Leader of the House was, therefore, totally phoney.

Mr. Foot

I have already dealt fully with that point in my previous reply. The right hon. Lady was suggesting that in some way or other a statement had to be made from this Dispatch Box—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—about changes forecast in a Bill which is now before the House. That would be a quite extraordinary way, rather than the ordinary way, of dealing with the business of the House.

Mr. Skinner

Instead of concentrating too much attention upon the problems of the Tory Party with regard to today's difficulties and the so-called crisis, would it not be better to have a debate next week on the whole question of the growing power of patronage of Government in order to ensure as a democratic Labour Party that we diminish the number of appointments made to national and regional boards, not only by the TUC but the CBI and the City? Some newspaper chiefs, who are currently critical about this, are only too glad to get hold of a job if ever they get the chance.

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend is suggesting a rather comprehensive debate and I doubt whether we could fit it in very neatly next week.

Mr. Marten

Has the Leader of the House noticed the regrettable tendency of Ministers to go to Brussels and not make oral statements to the House on their return? Both the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Energy made important statements by Written Answers when they should have made oral statements. Will he agree that this hands more power over to the Executive and takes it away from Parliament? Will he look into this matter and encourage his colleagues to make verbal statements to the House so that they can be questioned?

Mr. Foot

In all the discussions and debates that we have had on this matter I have acknowledged that we want to do everything we can to ensure that such statements are made orally to the House. I shall look into this matter. However the House must take account of the fact that if oral statements were made consistently on such occasions, the amount of parliamentary time taken by them would be considerable. We must take that into account. But that does not qualify what I said previously, and I shall look at these particular cases.

Mr. Christopher Price

Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the relationship between the debate on official secrets next week and the forthcoming White Paper that the Government have promised on this subject? Shall we have the White Paper before the debate, or will the Government use the debate to reorganise their thoughts about the White Paper?

Mr. Foot

I cannot promise the White Paper before the debate. I would point out that the choice of the debate on that day was made by the official Opposition.

Mr. Tebbit

How is it that the right hon. Gentleman's usual quick wits have failed to allow him to grasp the fact that our concern about lack of statements today is because the Government's crisis measures mark a complete turnabout in economic policy? Does he not understand, even if the Chancellor has not got this point yet, that the measures announced today cannot be a part of the strategy for the industrial regeneration of Britain? Nor can they be aimed at job creation, and they do little to re-establish confidence in the Chancellor's handling of our affairs. Will the Leader of the House promise us a statement next week?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has based his questions on a false premise. The measures indicated by the Government today, which will be brought forward at the proper time, are fully consistent with the Budget. Had it not been for the action that he and his hon. Friends took—I have not checked his voting record but I am willing to guess it—we would not have needed this part of the proposal.

Mr. Flannery

My right hon. Friend was kind enough to deal sympathetically two weeks ago with a request from me for a debate on oil tanker catastrophes. In view of the fact that it has taken a prolonged time to get over one catastrophe and that there was nearly another of major proportions, will he consider seriously having a debate—no matter how short—on the whole subject of the catastrophes of oil tankers?

Mr. Foot

I accept the importance of this subject, but I am not sure of the best way to provide a debate on it. I shall take account of what has been said and consider how we should proceed.

Mr. George Gardiner

Does the Leader of the House not understand that today's announcement was not simply a routine amendment to the Finance Bill, but a second-thoughts Budget? In these circumstances are we to be denied even a statement, which will give us a chance to question the Prime Minister and perhaps get the answer—which he ducked this afternoon—about how many jobs will be lost as a result of this increase in jobs tax?

Mr. Foot

This will be an appropriate matter for debate when the proposition comes before the House. The House of Commons does not do its business by having constant statements after Question Time about proposed amendments to the Finance Bill or any other Bill. That is not the way that we proceed with our business. If we did that, the official Opposition would be the first to complain about our taking up time that had already been allocated under the normal procedures.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is it not a matter of importance to the fishing industry, consumers, producers and many small economies in Scotland and England that next Wednesday's debate is very short and is due to finish at 7 o'clock? Will my right hon. Friend consult his Government colleagues to see whether it would be possible to place in the Vote Office or the Library a summary of the up-to-date position so that we can have a more informed debate on a matter that is of vital importance to the future of this country?

Mr. Foot

I recognise the importance of the subject. I do not know whether it is possible to do what my hon. Friend has suggested. I shall consult the Minister of Agriculture to see whether it can be done.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I have a very long list of hon. Members who are hoping to catch my eye in the next debate and no doubt there are others as well. I hope that hon. Members will keep their questions very brief.

Mr. Gow

Are not the measures announced today a massive indictment of the Chancellor's policy in the Budget, only two months ago? If the result of our amendment to the Finance Bill was the cause of today's measures why has it taken five weeks for the Government to announce the measures that they need to take?

Mr. Foot

Had the hon. Member followed the statement that was made following the vote, he would see that it was perfectly clear that the Government said that they would consider the matter and come forward with proposals designed to remedy the situation. That is what is happening.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Before we have the Report stage of the Finance Bill, may we have a statement showing that, in pursuit of a naked class interest, the Opposition, with their amendments, are proposing to give handouts of £1,100 million to wealthier people in the community, irrespective of the increase to the public sector borrowing requirement and the cost to the sick and elderly?

Mr. Foot

These are facts of the kind that the Opposition are trying to conceal. I am sure that my hon. Friend and others will illustrate the truth when the debate takes place.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Is it not a gratuitous offence to the House to try to deny us a debate on the highly debatable points that both the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister have made today? Will the right hon. Gentleman continue, for the next three weeks anyway, to continue to deny the opportunity to debate the increase in unemployment which the Prime Minister himself announced today, and will he continue to argue that a 1p reduction in income tax has caused the increase in the MLR, the imposition of the credit squeeze and the equivalent of 4p on income tax?

Mr. Foot

I have not made any such suggestions on this matter. The hon. Member has got it wrong about unemployment. The official Opposition have brought about this situation and have called on the Government to take action to compensate for what they have done. Of course we are dealing with it in a different way, but we are dealing with a normal situation, and it is wrong to suggest that our methods are abnormal.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

On the minimum lending rate, does my right hon. Friend not think it odd that some Con- servatives who are associated with or are partners in leading firms of money brokers in the city should have been calling for the increase in the MLR and then should complain about the action of the Government who have conceded this request?

Mr. Foot

If I were to spend my time commenting on everything that is odd in their behaviour we would never start today's debate.

Mr. Aitken

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his answer to the excellent suggestion of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who called for a debate on the increase in patronage and the ever-increasing proliferation of QUANGOs such as the furniture councils and others?

Is the Government not aware that about £20 million of taxpayers' money is now being paid in part time salaries and expenses to political appointees, many of whom are already trade union officials? If the Labour Party is to become the party of jobs for the boys, ought not this House to debate the matter?

Mr. Foot

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is the best person in the House to dilate on the subject of jobs for the boys. He can smear other people but he does not like to have a counterattack. It would be a good idea if the House were to consider this matter on some future occasion, but if the Opposition or the hon. Gentleman would like to seek a debate on the matter, he knows how to do it.

Mr. English

Does my right hon. Friend recall that about 11 months ago the Government were handed a copy of the Expenditure Committee's report upon the Civil Service? Does he recall also that it was the then Lord President of the Council, now Lord Peart, who withdrew the Government's decision, for reconsideration by the Cabinet, to deal with the question of the possible corruption of civil servants by offering them jobs after their retirement? When shall we get the answer?

Mr. Foot

Not next week, but it may be some time after that.

Mr. Channon

Is the Lord President saying that the announcement made this morning about increasing the revenue by £1,500 million is not worthy of a statement in this House? Is it not a parliamentary disgrace that we have not had an opportunity to question the Chancellor of the Exchequer about these very important matters?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman, who understands the procedures of the House, knows very well that when a Government have proposals to make changes in a Finance Bill, the proper way to do it is in accordance with the procedures already laid down by the House for dealing with it.

Mr. Heffer

Will my right hon. Friend ask his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to publish the White Paper in relation to the reform of the Official Secrets Act at the earliest possible moment? May we then have an assurance that there will be a full debate in the House on the matter? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Labour Members, and also the working party of the national executive committee of the Labour Party, are very concerned to have a Bill dealing with freedom of information introduced in this country at the earliest possible moment, based upon the legislation which already exists in the United States of America and in Sweden?

Mr. Foot

I am fully aware of the very great interest taken by my hon. Friend and other Labour Members in this subject. I think that the time to consider how we should proceed to a debate, and what should be the next course of action, will be after the White Paper is published. But I am fully aware of the views of my hon. Friend and others on the matter.

Mr. David Price

In view of the fact that the Leader of the House earlier, in answer to a question, told us how good natured he was, and in view of the fact that the Government are obviously broken-backed and lame, will the right hon. Gentleman persuade the Prime Minister to announce next week the dissolution of this Parliament and the holding of an immediate General Election?

Mr. Foot

I thought that the Opposition were perhaps not so much interested in parliamentary procedure as in trying to make propaganda out of the subject. The hon. Gentleman's question only confirms my suspicion in that respect.

Mr. Molloy

In view of the questions which have been put by Opposition Members this afternoon, and in view also of the questions put to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which clearly show the attitude of the Conservative Opposition, I appeal to my right hon. Friend to consider that perhaps we should have a debate, in the national interest, in order to try to discover what is the psychological factor which causes them to cry about the milk which they have spilt?

Mr. Foot

We shall see when the debate comes.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I shall call the four hon. Members who have been standing. I hope that they will be brief.

Mr. Rost

Will the Leader of the House at least have the honesty to admit that the Government are ashamed to make, or afraid to make, a proper statement in the House about the latest Budget crisis because of the fact that they know that they have to face the run-up to a General Election?

Mr. Foot

I repudiate entirely what the hon. Gentleman has suggested. The country will learn perfectly well in good time that we are dealing with this Finance Bill in the same way as other Finance Bills have been dealt with.

Mr. Burden

The right hon. Gentleman has refused absolutely to have a debate on the economic position arising out of the announcement made today. Is it not a fact that the Government have borrowed in all $8.55 billion from abroad and that $4.26 billion of that money was borrowed last year? If the economy of the country were so much on course, why was it necessary to borrow this large amount of dollars from overseas? This money has to be repaid in dollars. Why was this done when North Sea oil was beginning to flow?

Mr. Foot

There are many general subjects involved in that question which have been discussed in the House on many past occasions, and I am sure that they will be discussed in many future debates. A Finance Bill provides a full opportunity for the House to discuss a wide range of financial questions. The Bill is now going through the House. I am sure that when the House has had second thoughts and is able to understand it as a whole, it will realise that we are proposing that the Finance Bill should take into account in the usual manner the proposals that the Government will make at the Report stage.

Mr. MacKay

Bearing in mind that today's crisis measures announced by the Government through the Press include a jobs tax, which will create increased unemployment in my constituency and elsewhere, is it not a disgrace that we are not to have a statement or debate about it and that we have to await the Report stage of the Finance Bill? Will the Lord President reconsider his decision and allow us to have a debate or statement next week?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman has got it quite wrong. I suggest that he should go away and read the warnings that were given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by others in the debates that took place on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill and in regard to the amendments that were subsequently carried in Committee. Those discussions will be renewed during the Committee stage and on Report in the context of the proposal which the Government will be bringing forward then.

Mr. Brooke

I am genuinely grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, in view of my constituency interests, for calling me last. Does the Leader of the House recognise that the malaise in the financial markets of recent weeks has been caused by uncertainty? Does he further recognise that that uncertainty might conceivably—I emphasise conceivably—be diminished if we were to have a debate on the Government's decision?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman knows that, as I have said many times this afternoon, the Finance Bill is now before the House and it is for the House to discuss it. If the House wishes to have irregular debates on the matter, that is a matter also for the Opposition, if they wish to make a selection of subjects. But the course we are following is that which the House of Commons usually follows, and for anyone to say differently is misleading.