HC Deb 25 January 1979 vol 961 cc694-705
Mrs. Thatcher

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 29 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Price Commission (Amendment) Bill.

Motion relating to the Wireless Telegraphy (Broadcast Licence Charges and Exemptions) (Amendment) Regulations.

TUESDAY 30 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Countryside Bill.

Remaining stages of the Estate Agents Bill and of the Public Lending Right Bill.

WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY—Committee and remaining stages of the Price Commission (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 1 FEBRUARY—Motion to appoint the Joint Committee on the Special Commission on Oil Sanctions.

FRIDAY 2 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Supply [6th allotted day]: subject for debate to be announced.

Mrs. Thatcher

The Lord President has provided absolutely no time at all next week for hon. Members to discuss the current situation. He will be aware from the number of hon. Members rising in their places wishing to question Ministers about events or the circumstances of firms in their constituencies that there is a great demand for time for them effectively to be able to put their points. Will he therefore rearrange the business for next week to provide time for such a debate?

Mr. Foot

There is a debate this afternoon in which these matters will be raised. There will be a further opportunity for the Opposition directly to raise some of these matters in the business that I have announced.

The Government are, of course, eager to provide the opportunity for replies on these matters. I do not believe that anyone who has listened to the replies given by Ministers throughout this week could doubt that the Government have been most forthcoming in answering all the questions which have been put. It is very good evidence of the way in which the House can provide opportunities to deal with such problems.

Mr. Litterick

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to early-day motion 188, which draws the attention of the House to the proposed destruction of the Hillingdon law centre by the local council?

[That this House deplores the decision of the Hillingdon local authority to terminate all financial support to the Hillingdon Community Law Centre from 1 April 1979; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to provide the necessary financial support to ensure that this indispensable community service will not be destroyed.]

As law centres throughout London and other parts of the country are experiencing similar problems, will my right hon. Friend provide time for the House to debate the status and position of law centres in Britain today?

Mr. Foot

I cannot promise time, for a debate next week, but, as my hon. Friend knows, there are many opportunities for individual Members to raise questions.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Since the Secretary of State has now been under attack for some time, and since, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) pointed out, there is at least a plausible assumption that sinister elements are at work, would it not be appropriate at some time next week for the House to go into secret session for a short period in order that the Secretary of State for Defence may disclose to us what advice he has received on this matter from military intelligence?

Mr. Foot

If such a matter were to be raised, I do not think that my right hon. Friend would be responsible. In any case, that is an absurd piece of scaremongering, which merely helps to contribute to an atmosphere that ought not to be encouraged.

Mr. Ward

Has the short and simple Bill to give new powers to district councils in respect of travellers' sites been prepared? Does my right hon. Friend accept that many district councils are anxious to have this power? Will he bring forward the Bill before Easter?

Mr. Foot

I cannot promise to bring it forward before Easter. However, I shall look into the representations that my hon. Friend has made over a considerable period.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I think that the Lord President heard the Minister of Agriculture say earlier that matters relating to food in Scotland should be left to the Secretary of State for Scotland. Does the Lord President acknowledge that since the Secretary of State made his statement on Tuesday the situation has deteriorated? Shops in Montrose, in my constituency, have no sugar at all, evidence of which I gave to the Scottish Office this morning. In view of this deteriorating situation, when will the Secretary of State for Scotland answer questions in the House on the urgent matter of food supplies in Scotland?

Mr. Foot

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made a very good statement, as I believe the House appreciated when he made it. Of course, we shall consider when it may be necessary for him to make a further statement. In the meantime, the hon. Gentleman has taken the right course of taking up the matter either with the emergency committee or with the Secretary of State. That shows that the methods of this Parliament to deal with the situation are working.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call those hon. Members who have already been standing.

Mr. Grocott

Will my right hon. Friend look at early-day motion 178, which condemns the action of the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton), who blocked my Bill to end the beating of handicapped children?

[That this House deplores the action of the honourable Member for Cheadle in blocking the Bill to end the beating of handicapped children; and urges the Secretary of State for Education and Science to respond to the feelings of all decent people by banning the cane in special schools forthwith.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that that motion has now been signed by 59 hon. Members but that there have been no signatures by Opposition Members? Does he agree that all decent people in this country would feel that this practice should be stopped? If it cannot be done through the private Members' procedure, will he urge his Government colleagues to ensure that it is done by Government action?

Mr. Foot

Next Friday the House will have a further opportunity of considering the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend. If the Bill, which the Government will not be opposing, is enacted, no further action by the Government will be required. My hon. Friend knows that Bills of this nature have difficulties to encounter.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Is it not fatuous for the Leader of the House to suggest, in answer to a question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about what time he would make available next week for events that affect our constituents next week, that we can debate today events that will not occur until next week?

Mr. Foot

If we were to have a competition in fatuity, I do not suppose that there would be a better candidate than the hon. Gentleman. One of the very purposes of the House is to discuss not only what is happening this week but what might happen next week.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend consider urging his colleagues to make a statement on Times Newspapers Limited and the fact that many thousands of people have been locked out as a result of industrial action by The Times management? Will he also take into account that this morning I was searching for a suitable picket line for the Prime Minister to cross? May I suggest to him and his Cabinet colleagues that if he were to go to The Times he would, with my permission, be able to cross that picket line, which is manned by Duke Hussey and the rest of The Times management, and take with him those thousands of workers who want to get back to work, thereby reducing unemployment?

Mr. Foot

I agree with my hon. Friend. I did not know that he was such a passionate enthusiast for reading The Times, but I am glad to hear it. I agree that it is a serious matter for readers of The Times, for those who work on The Times and for the country as a whole that that newspaper should not be in production. It is the fact, as my hon. Friend stated, that this is a lock-out. Indeed, The Times has succeeded in having a lock-out without a single picket to enforce it.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

For how much longer is the Lord President of the Council going to dishonour his promise to the House that there will be an adequate opportunity of debating EEC regulations? When will he stop hiding behind his promise of a debate on the Procedure Committee report, which he uses as an excuse to prevent proper debate?

Mr. Foot

I am not using it as an excuse to prevent proper debate. The hon Gentleman knows as well as I do the background to the matter. We shall have a debate on these questions. The Procedure Committee has made a report on a matter that touches these questions and at some time we shall have a debate. I hope to be able to include in my next Business Statement an indication of when we might discuss the Procedure Committee's report. I have no doubt that, had I included it in this Business Statement, I should have been criticised for not providing time for other matters. Some of the matters that we shall be discussing next week will be directly concerned with the economic situation.

Mr. Cryer

Will my right hon. Friend encourage his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to make a statement next week, or even provide time for a debate, on the last report of the Health and Safety Executive? He will be keenly aware—I know that he is concerned about this matter—that more time is lost every year through industrial injury—a fact that the Opposition are totally uncaring about—than through strike action. Is not that the kind of matter that we should be debating rather than will-o'-the-wisp calls by the Opposition for debates on strikes?

Mr. Foot

I agree that it would be most desirable to have a debate on the work of the Health and Safety Commission. That is of major importance for the country, but sometimes these matters are difficult. There is pressure on time, and this matter can be raised by individual Members. However, I note my hon. Friend's proposal. I am not saying that we can do anything about this next week, but I hope that in the fairly near future we shall have a general debate on this subject.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I take the House back to the extremely important point raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on next week's business? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that throughout this crisis, which has been the gravest crisis that this country has experienced since the war, not a single day of Government time has been provided to debate the situation? Were it not for the efforts of the Opposition, we all know that there would be no opportunity for this House to discuss the crisis.

What is the point of tabling for next week a full day's debate on the Government's proposals on the Bingham report when the country is facing the present crisis? Will the right hon. Gentleman rearrange next week's business to enable the House to fulfil its constitutional function of expressing the mind of the people on the nation's problems through the representatives of the constituencies?

Mr. Foot

The House will have a convenient opportunity this afternoon to debate these matters. [HON. MEMBERS: "In our time."] Hon. Members say "In our time". I remind them that this is House of Commons time. It is the procedure of the House that so many Supply days are provided. The Opposition then choose the subject for consideration.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

What about next week?

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman has a Supply day the following week. I know that he does not want to debate the Bingham report. One of the reasons for our debating Bingham is that it was asked for by a most distinguished member of the Conservative Party, the chairman of the 1922 Committee. He urgently asked for a debate on the subject. I take full account of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I also have to take account of other views.

Mr. Madden

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the Minister of Agriculture to make a statement about next week's meeting of EEC Ministers of Agriculture, at which there will be pressure for MCAs to be withdrawn, which will have the effect of sharply increasing British food prices? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if such an increase occurs it will be far greater than would be the effect on our food prices of a settlement of the lorry drivers' claim?

Mr. Foot

I do not minimise the effects of the lorry drivers' strike on food supplies, and nobody should do so. I agree that this is an important matter. I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture should make a statement next week, but some occasion must be found for it.

Mr. Tebbit

May we have a statement next week on the practice concerning Prime Minister's questions? Is the Lord President aware that considerable concern has been expressed time and again about the fact that almost all the questions tabled to the Prime Minister ask him about his engagements for the day, and similar matters? Is he further aware that although the Prime Minister in the past always answered questions about the social contract, now that we are told there is to be a new one, within a matter of weeks, not days, the Prime Minister has now resorted to transferring questions about the social contract, although at the Dispatch Box he still refers to the new negotiations for another one? May we have a little more sense injected into this matter?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong again. He has almost a 100 per cent. record of getting it wrong. On previous occasions such questions used to go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If the hon. Gentleman or other hon. Members have criticisms about the questions put to the Prime Minister, they must take a look at themselves. It is hon. Members who table questions and my right hon. Friend who provides the answers.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report that large South African funds have been misappropriated and spent outside South Africa? Is any inquiry being made on the question whether any of those funds have been used in this country, and, if so, for what purpose? May we expect a statement on this topic?

Mr. Foot

I do not propose to make any statement on that topic. I suggest that my hon. Friend tables a question on the matter.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement next week about the broadcasting arrangements for the referendum campaign? Does he agree that all these broadcasts should be evenly balanced between the proposition on the ballot paper, which amounts to voting "Yes" or "No"? What arrangements have been made to see that this idea is carried through in party political broadcasts?

Mr. Foot

These matters are usually discussed between the political parties. I shall see whether it is desirable to have a statement on the subject.

Mr. Michael Morris

Will the right hon. Gentleman have discussions with his Cabinet colleagues to see whether there should be a printed statement each day about the supply of food, so that hon. Members will know exactly what is the Government's information? I checked at noon today with the glass manufacturers, and I was told that every one of the Rockware factories was closed in respect of the inflow and outflow of glass bottles.

Mr. Foot

I do not think that a statement of that nature would be the best way of dealing with the matter. I insist that the way in which the House has dealt with this matter in the past week has been the best way of proceeding. It cannot be said that Ministers have been backward in making statements to the House.

I fully appreciate, as the right hon. Lady the leader of the Opposition suggested, that at times these matters interfere with some of the other business, but the House adapts itself to deal with these situations. I suggest that the House has been adapting itself fairly successfully.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that since the road haulage strike began, each day we have been told that there is a grave shortage of food and that everybody is starving? Does he appreciate that the press, the police and many hundreds of workers, including Members of Parliament—if they can be called workers—are in this Palace of Westminster starving every day? May we have some information on how this starvation is affecting hon. Members, and will he see to it that Members get their food? I repeat that we are all supposed to be starving in this place.

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend is a walking refutation of that accusation.

Mr. Michael Latham

Since there was once a time when the Secretary of State for Employment was supposed to settle disputes, could the Leader of the House arrange for his right hon. Friend next week to make a statement on this industrial dispute? So far that right hon. Gentleman has done nothing.

Mr. Foot

It is a very silly sneer from the hon. Gentleman to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has not been in the House. Those who suggest that he has not been here no doubt were not present when he was answering questions in the House this week. It is absurd for the hon. Gentleman to make any such accusation. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the previous conciliation and arbitration facilities in the old Ministry of Labour are now incorporated in ACAS, which also has been working fully to resolve these difficulties.

Mr. Farr

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman for his help in this respect? Some of us have been coming to the House since Monday to try to catch Mr. Speaker's eye to put urgent questions to the Minister of Agriculture—and possibly to the Prime Minister—but have had no success. My question relates to the loss of 1,500 jobs, tonight, of workers who will be laid off and made redundant. I have been unable to put that question to the Minister concerned. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman make a more satisfactory arrangement to meet the difficulties of hon. Members such as myself, who can do no more than comply with the rules? Next week, while the present shambles continues, could we be given better access to the responsible Minister and for a longer period of time? Why cannot the Prime Minister be available, if not every day, at least for half an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that we may have a greater chance of questioning him?

Mr. Foot

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to serve his constituents immediately, he should contact the relevant Department on the subject. That is the normal method by which hon. Members seek to deal with these problems. It is misleading to people outside for him to suggest that because he has not caught the eye of Mr. Speaker he is unable to deal with these matters. Another service that the House might wish to have is a statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry, and I shall examine that aspect. However, the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has to wait for a statement before taking action is not true.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Is the Lord President aware that during the present desperate crisis the situation changes week by week, or even day by day? Is he aware that in the North-West tens of thousands of textile workers have been laid off or are being laid off? Will he, therefore, take the point raised quite rightly by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and provide a day next week when the subject of employment can be discussed? During that debate perhaps the Government will indicate to the House whether they are prepared to take special measures—will the Lord President give an assurance on this? —to lift certain provisions of the Employment Protection Act which force employers to pay out lay-off pay. If they have to continue to do this and the lay-offs are protracted, there will be permanent job loss and many employers will go out of business.

Mr. Foot

The point that the hon. Gentleman is raising is not a question about business next week. He may be able to raise some of those matters, if he wishes, in the debate this afternoon. I presume that that is what the debate is for. If the hon. Gentleman and others suggest that they would like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to make a statement to the House—

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Yes, tomorrow.

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman says "Tomorrow". I shall certainly consider whether that is the most convenient time. Some hon. Members may say that they would prefer to have it on Monday, but we shall see.

Mr. Sainsbury

Does the Lord President recall saying how important it was that the House should have an opportunity to discuss what will happen next week? Does he agree that in the light of that—since we will have an opportunity, very shortly perhaps, to consider what will happen next week—it would be most appropriate for the Government to provide an early opportunity next week for the House to consider what should happen the week after? We did not get much information on the subject of food from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food today.

Mr. Foot

It is extremely churlish for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that he was not given any information—or that he was given very little—on the subject. He just did not like what he was told, that is all. His facts did not seem to accord with those given by my right hon. Friend. The House has had plenty of opportunity for statements to be made by Ministers. I fully acknowledge that in the present circumstances Ministers must constantly attend the House and answer such questions. That we have done and will continue to do.