HC Deb 28 June 1979 vol 969 cc651-62
Mr. James Callaghan

Will the Leader of the House please state the business for next week?

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 2 JULY—Motions on the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order and on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 (Continuance) Order.

TUESDAY 3 JULY, WEDNESDAY 4 JULY and THURSDAY 5 JULY—Progress in Committee on the Finance Bill.

At the end on Thursday 5 July, motion on the St. Vincent Termination of Association Order.

FRIDAY 6 JULY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 9 JULY—Further progress in Committee on the Finance Bill.

Mr. Callaghan

The Leader of the House has heard the exchanges this afternoon. Does he accept the necessity for the Secretary of State for Energy, early next week, to make a full statement in the House both on the distribution of oil products and on the impact of the latest decisions of the OPEC countries, so that industry, farming and the private consumer may know the Government's conclusion and what proposals they have, if any, for meeting the situation?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Industry, if he is in charge of Post Office affairs, to make a statement on what is happening in that area, so that commercial and private business is not unduly interrupted?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has made a statement on the oil question, but I shall convey to him the wishes of the Leader of the Opposition.

As for the situation in the Post Office, we are very concerned about recent developments there, and I shall certainly pass on the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Stokes

Can the Leader of the House give any information on the production of the daily Hansard?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am concerned about the production of the daily Hansard, and also about the Order Paper. This is due to an industrial dispute. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department is seeing the parties concerned this afternoon, and I am hopeful that this essential service will soon be restored to the House.

Mr. Dubs

Will the Leader of the House find time to discuss the whole procedure at Prime Minister's Question Time? This seems to have become a real farce, not necessarily in terms of the answers that we are getting—they are not the fault of the Leader of the House—but in terms of the formula for asking questions which are time-wasting and which give the House less chance of questioning the Prime Minister. Would it not be better to simplify the procedure?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend any reflection on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, I am aware of the concern in the House at the development in Prime Minister's Question Time, which has occurred under a number of Prime Ministers. I am aware, too, that there is a feeling in the House that it would be better for the House, for hon. Members, and also for the Prime Minister, if there could be a change in practice, with perhaps more direct questions. I shall look into the matter.

Mr. Bevan

In view of the imminent threat to the nation's lifeline by virtue of stamps not being available through the Post Office—we are told that as a result of certain action the supply of stamps in London will dry up in three days, and in the provinces shortly—will my right hon. Friend give an indication that during this emergency, which will bring great unemployment to this country, his right hon. Friend will either allow free post or take away the licensing monopoly of the GPO, so that the Royal Mail will continue to ensure that this nation survives?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the sale of stamps. I understand that the Post Office estimates that in the larger offices there is a sufficient supply of stamps for several weeks, but only about one week's supply in sub-post offices. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry is giving the chairman of the Post Office full backing in the measures that he is taking to restore the service, and is keeping in close touch with the situation. Of course, my right hon. Friend does not have the power—nor do I believe the House would wish him to have it—to interfere in the day-to-day management of the Post Office.

With regard to the State monopoly of the Post Office, one of the options being considered by my right hon. Friend is whether any modification is required. That has not been ruled out. On the other hand, it has not been ruled in.

Mrs. Renée Short

When does the Leader of the House intend to set up the Select Committees that were approved by the House early on Tuesday morning? I understand that the Selection Committee will meet next week. Will the right hon. Gentleman charge it with setting up these Commitees so that urgent reports, such as the one on perinatal mortality, which is hanging fire until the Committee can be reconstituted, can be completed? This is very urgent.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I know of the work that the hon. Lady has done in the Select Committee that considered perinatal mortality. I am anxious that that work should be preserved. I agree that this is an urgent matter. I do not think that it is for me to charge the Selection Committee with anything, but I shall encourage it to move fast so that the Committees are set up before the House adjourns for the Summer Recess.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

In view of the continual difficulties over the printing of parliamentary papers and other products of the Stationery Office, and when this particular episode is over, will my right hon. Friend consider making a report to the House on the reasons for these interruptions in the proper supply of our papers? Is he aware that every time a settlement is made Ministers breathe a sigh of relief and do not wish to dig any deeper into the matter, lest they make things worse, but that that attitude only produces another dispute in three months' time?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am aware, as I am sure my right hon. Friend is, that this is a difficult and delicate situation. No one deplores more than I do the interruption of the supply of papers to the House. Perhaps I may use this occasion to pay tribute to the staff of the House who, in a difficult situation, keep us supplied with our necessary papers.

Mr. Duffy

Is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread anxiety felt in South Yorkshire about the continuing reports in the press—repeated in today's edition of The Guardian—of the impending cancellation by the Government of the transfer of the headquarters of the Manpower Services Commission to Sheffield? Will the right hon. Gentleman provide an opportunity for local Members of Parliament to debate this matter before any decision is announced?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not know that I can promise a debate on the subject, but I am aware of the anxiety that is felt on this matter. In fact, in my normal daily reading of The Guardian I noticed the point and, indeed, a picture of the building concerned. However, there are difficult issues here. It is not a question of "right or wrong". I think that there is a conflict of "rights". I must ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient for a bit longer, until decisions can be taken.

Mr. Churchill

Bearing in mind the grave implications for the security and defence of the United Kingdom posed by certain articles of the SALT II agreement, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we shall have an early opportunity to debate the matter?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It will be difficult to provide such an opportunity before the recess, but there may well be an opportunity to raise the matter during the Foreign Secretary's Question Time.

Mr. Ray Powell

Is the Minister aware of the provisions of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act regarding accommodation for hon. Members? Will he provide time next week for this matter to be fully debated, so that the Mother of Parliaments can at least nurture her newborn babes and not send them on the streets of London like urchins, as has happened to some hon. Members since I was elected?

In addition, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the fact that the Act clearly states that an employer can be taken to court for not providing the accommodation necessary under the Act? As you, Mr. Speaker, are the titular employer of Members of Parliament, I do not believe that any hon. Member, new or old, would like that action to be taken. Nevertheless, it is available under the Act. What action is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to take?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am happy to say that the immediate problem of the allotment of rooms and desks to hon. Members has been satisfactorily solved—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—more or less satisfactorily solved. I pay tribute to those who have been so co-operative in this matter—and to those who have encouraged them to be so.

I am aware that in the long term the situation is not satisfactory. I am looking into the matter. We shall shortly be bringing the issue before the Services Committee to see whether better use can be made of such accommodation as we have. In the long run, we need a new Parliament building. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear "]. I do not mean that it should be to replace this one: I mean that it should be in addition to it. However, the times hardly seem to be auspicious for that. I hope that we shall not reach the extreme point of a trial, which the hon. Member suggested. It would raise some interesting problems, because the appropriate court would be the High Court of Parliament.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

On what day does the Prime Minister expect to make her statement on the Tokyo summit? Will the Leader of the House ask her to include in that statement her assessment, after her discussions, of the consequences of the OPEC oil price rise and, indeed—as she has spoken to President Carter—her assessment of the consequences of the SALT II agreement for the defence of Europe?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Certainly I shall convey those requests to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I am sure that she will have thought of those matters already. My right hon. Friend will make her statement on the day after her return. [HON. MEMBERS: "When will that be?"] I am just working it out. It will be Tuesday next.

Mr. Newens

Is the right hon. Gentleman yet in a position to say when he will be able to tell us of any possible changes in the time devoted to foreign affairs questions? He will remember that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have, pointed out that because questions on EEC affairs and overseas aid are combined with questions on the rest of the world there is now, in the eyes of many Members, a shortage of time for putting questions on the rest of the world? In those circumstances, will it be possible to make any change before the recess, and perhaps even in time for the next foreign affairs Question Time?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am pursuing the matter not only through the usual channels but with Ministers and the Opposition spokesmen concerned. I hope to be in a position to make a statement on the matter, one way or the other, by the time of my next Business Statement.

Mr. Latham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are two views in the House on the subject of Prime Minister's Question Time? Some hon. Members think that the open question is to the advantage of Back Benchers because it gives no indication of what is intended by way of supplementary questions, and it was the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) who tried to stop such questions when the system was first introduced by a Labour Back Bencher in the previous Parliament.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sure that there are more than two views in the House on this subject. If there were only two, it would be comparatively simple to decide between them. In seeing what can be done to increase the utility of Prime Minister's Question Time, every view will be taken into account, but I cannot hold out the hope of any revolutionary change. These things come about by practice more than by decree.

Mr. Heffer

In view of the widespread concern about the future of regional policy and the position of development areas and special development areas, will the right hon. Gentleman say when we are likely to have a statement—I hope that it will be at an early date—from the Secretary of State for the Environment on the future of the Government's regional policy?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

These are important matters. I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the hon. Member's concern.

Mr. Cormack

In view of the crucial importance of the SALT II agreement, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we shall have a chance to debate it before the United States Congress makes its final decision on ratification?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That date is rather unpredictable, so I cannot be categorical about it. But, clearly, the House must have an opportunity to debate matters of major concern in foreign affairs.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the law of contempt is in a hell of a mess, particularly since the ruling in Strasbourg on The Sunday Times thalidomide case? Will he provide time for an early debate on this subject or, perhaps, indicate when the Government's proposed legislation will be brought before the House for debate?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The matter is under examination. It is an urgent matter but, not having had the benefit of serving in the Law Officers' Department, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has, I should not use such robust language.

Mr. Lawrence

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) about Select Committees, will my right hon. Friend explain how it can be possible for those of us who served for a year on the perinatal and neonatal mortality inquiry to conclude our inquiry under the new arrangements on which the House has voted, and whether it would he possible to have some sort of transitional arrangement whereby that Sub-Committee of the Select Committee—that is, those of us who are left on it—can conclude its inquiries before the introduction of the new measures?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I should like to accommodate my hon. Friend, but I cannot do it in that way. The House has made up its mind and taken its decision. I hope that the appropriate Committee will take up and complete the work to which my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) referred. I shall encourage it to do so.

Mr. O'Neill

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time next week for a debate on capital punishment? As an assiduous reader of The Guardian, will he recommend to his colleagues that they read the article in today's New Society, which clearly demonstrates that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is irrelevant? We should take the earliest opportunity to end the argument about this barbaric form of punishment.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman has made his position plain. I cannot provide a debate next week, but I promise a debate on this important subject before the House rises for the Summer Recess. The reading matter of my colleagues is a matter for them. Having recommended The Guardian, if I were to add New Society I should be pushing my luck.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith

Is my right hon. Friend also pursuing the matter of the inadequate time provided for oral questions to the Attorney-General, which amounts to about 10 minutes a month? I raised the matter in the House the other day. If my right hon. Friend is pursuing it, what has been the result?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am in hot pursuit and hope to be able to deal with that matter at the same time as Foreign Office questions, because the issues are related. If hon. Members look through the order of questions they will see that there is little flexibility. Few Ministers have uninterrupted time in the whole question period.

Mr. James Lamond

Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed the increasing interest of the House in Indo-Chinese affairs, as shown by Adjournment debates and questions? These matters are of deep concern to the United Kingdom. Should we not have an opportunity for sensible debate? The need is certainly not met by the Home Secretary bellowing from the Dispatch Box his condemnation of the Vietnamese Government.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am fully aware of the important humanitarian considerations involved and shall look into the matter. It is clearly of great concern and has touched the conscience of the entire nation. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate.

As to the tones of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I do not find his voice bellowing. I find it soothing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

If hon. Gentlemen will ask brief questions, I shall call them all.

Mr. Canavan

Bearing in mind that there are more than 80 signatories to my early-day motion 57 objecting to the Secretary of State for Scotland's order to allow the SNP-controlled Cumbernauld and Kilsyth district council to impose a savage 40 per cent. rent increase on council house tenants, will there be an opportunity to debate and decide that matter on the Floor of the House?

[That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Housing (Limitation of Rent Income Increases) (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth District) (Scotland) Revocation Order 1979(S.I., 1979, No. 669), dated 13th June 1979, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th June, be annulled.]

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is an important matter, and I suggest that it should be pursued by the hon. Gentleman through the usual channels.

Mr. Douglas

Returning to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, if the Leader of the House is successful in getting the Secretary of State for Energy to come before the House, will he ask him to take cognisance of the effect of the OPEC price increases on the development of our resources? We are sick and tired of seeing articles in the newspapers about the gas gathering system and the deep drilling programme. The House should have an opportunity to look at the Government's overall strategy for the development of the North Sea because it has deep and significant implications for British industry.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I agree with the hon. Member on the importance of that subject. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is pursuing these problems within his Department, and continual study is going on. I shall convey to him the concern that I believe is widespread for a debate.

Mr. English

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is going backwards in taking the whole of the Finance Bill Committee on the Floor of the House, even though it may be with the approval of the Opposition Front Bench? To avoid boring the pants off hon. Members who are not tax experts, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to bring those wretched sittings to a close at 10 o'clock?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That suggestion is of great interest, but I am rather dubious about whether it will commend itself to all hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman is a little over-pessimistic. We may be taking up time, but surely we must be going forwards and not backwards.

Mr. Hooley

Does the Leader of the House agree that a debate on foreign affairs is infinitely more important than one on hanging? Will there be an opportunity to debate the situation in Southern Africa before the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

One cannot make qualitative judgments about the importance of subjects that are not strictly comparable. Some hon. Members will be more interested in capital punishment than in foreign affairs.

Mr. Russell Kerr

On the Conservative Benches.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

No, on both sides. It is a feature of this House that hon. Members have their personal priorities. I shall certainly bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Further to the right hon. Gentleman's promise that next week we shall have a debate on energy, will he consider having a wide-ranging debate to include the coal situation, the wisdom of selling BP shares at present and the reduction in the amount given to the Coal Board at a time when a coal pit with large reserves of coal is being closed in my constituency?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It would not be proper for me to go into the details of that. I have to balance the desire of hon. Members to debate a variety of subjects with that of not being kept sitting until the middle of August.

Mr. James Callaghan

May I revert to the rather evasive replies of the Leader of the House about the ratification of SALT II and the prospect of a debate? There is a serious need to debate that and show the United States Senate and the American people that the House is united in wishing that agreement to be ratified. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] In that case, may I amend my statement and ask whether the Leader of the House is aware that we wish to show our support of the Prime Minister's desire that that agree- ment should be ratified? Will he therefore arrange for a debate on the subject at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The reaction of hon. Members to the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition shows that this is a subject on which we should proceed not evasively but cautiously. When the Leader of the Opposition expresses himself in such terms, we must take note of it. I shall convey his wish and that of those supporting his views to my right hon Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In my question to the Lord President on regional policy. I unfortunately referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment, when I meant the Secretary of State for Industry. I perhaps had in mind also a statement on inner city policy, which is a matter for the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That was not a point of order.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the correction of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). May I ask him to make another? I am not Lord President of the Council.

Mr. Heffer

One cannot win them all.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is the first time that I have had the opportunity to tell the Leader of the House that a matter refererd to by him is not a point of order.