HC Deb 18 December 1980 vol 996 cc551-60

3.4 pm

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for the week after the Christmas Recess?

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

The business for the first week after the Adjournment is as follows:

MONDAY I2 J ANU ARY—Second Reading of the Fisheries Bill.

Motions on the Local Authority Grants (Termination) (Scotland) Order and on the undertakings relating to the Highlands and Islands shipping services.

TUESDAY 13 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Transport Bill.

Motions relating to the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations and the Heavy Goods Vehicles (Drivers' Licences) (Amendment) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 14 JANUARY—Motions on the Rate Support Grant Report (England), the Rate Support Grant (Increase) Order, the (Increase) (No. 2) Order and the (Principles for Multipliers) Order.

Motion on the Rate Support Grant Report (Wales). THURSDAY 15 JANUARY—Supply [4th Allotted Day]: The subject for debate to be announced later.

Motion on European Community documents on production quotas for steel, No. 10180/80, and on social measures for the steel industry, Nos. 10179/80, 8472/79, 6534/80 and 10879/80.

FRIDAY 16 JANUARY—Private Members' motions.

[Debate on European Community documents relating to the steel industry:

The relevant reports of the European Legislation Committee are—

Production quotas:

42nd Report, 1979–80, H.C. 159-XLII, para. 4. Social measures:

19th Report, 1979–80,H.C. 159-XIX, para. 1;

34th Report. 1979–80, H.C. 159-xxxiv, para. 1;

46th Report, 1979–80, H.C. 159-xlvi, para. 1;

4th Report, 1980–81, H.C. 32-iv, para. 1.]

Mr. Foot

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be more convenient for the House on Monday 12 January to debate the fisheries discussions or breakdown in the negotiations in Brussels in the past day or so before we debate the Bill, which deals with other questions? Does he recall that I have urged on several occasions that we should have a statement and debate on the serious crisis affecting British Rail? We believe that it would be wrong for the House to let the days and weeks pass without the House having a chance to consider the dangers.

Does the right hon. Gentleman also recall that we have on numerous occasions urged that there must be a debate on unemloyment whenever the figures are announced? Although we are not able to have a debate when the figures for next Tuesday are announced, will the Government provide time in the first week that Parliament returns for a debate on unemployment, which is causing grave concern throughout the country? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman and the Government take a good deal more seriously than the right hon. Lady did a few minutes ago the report of the Treasury Select Committee on the Government's monetary policy and its collapse—a report signed by many distinguished Conservative Members, as well as my hon. Friends? Will he urge the Prime Minister to make arrangements for the House to debate that matter in the first week or so after we return?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

On the four points raised by the right hon. Gentleman, first, there is a statement this afternoon on fisheries by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and there will be an opportunity to raise matters then.

Mr. Foot

The Secretary of State for Scotland?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Yes. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is still in Brussels. I suggest that the question of British Rail is a matter that should be pursued through the usual channels. As for a debate on employment and unemployment, we have provided a Supply day on Thursday 15 January.

Mr. Robert. Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

the Government have not supplied the day.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Yes, we have. It is up to the Government to provide Supply days. The rights of the Opposition are to have 29 Supply days, but the disposition of them is in the hands of the Government. We have made that day available. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to debate unemployment, that is an opportunity. As for the report of the Treasury Select Committee, we take that extremely seriously. I take it particularly seriously. After all, I played some part in the setting up of those Committees. However, I do not recognise, in its balanced assessment of the situation, any basis for the right hon. Gentleman's rather wild statement.

Mr. Foot

If the right hon. Gentleman is still under the illusion that the Select Committee's report gives a balanced judgment on the Government's economic policy, may I suggest that he goes away to read it? Is he not aware that the message is "We are not clear what it means"? That is the import of the reply given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his evidence to the Select Committee. There cannot be one other person who would share the Leader of the House's conclusion. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman makes sure that the Select Committee's report is put in the Christmas stocking of every member of the Cabinet. I hope that it is the first thing that they have to read when they wake up on Christmas morning. It is evident that most have not yet had the chance to read it.

On the unemployment debate, it is not satisfactory for us always to have to provide time for such debates. We hope that before we return after the recess the Government will have looked at the matter afresh and will provide time to discuss the record unemployment levels that we see month after month. We shall make sure that the House discusses this most urgent of domestic questions, but the Government also have a duty to provide time.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The right hon. Gentleman must know that the whole purpose of Supply days is to enable the Opposition to raise subjects that they wish to be debated. We have gone out of our way to provide an opportunity in the first week after the recess. I am prepared to see whether the Select Committee report can be distributed, though there are things that one might prefer in one's Christmas stocking. If I provide a copy of the report, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will provide copies of his book "Debts of Honour", which includes such a favourable assessment of the greatest Tory leader, Mr. Disraeli.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he was in the House when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed to a debate on the five-year corporate plan of British Leyland? Will he earmark that debate for an early slot in the agenda and confirm that it will not go by default?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is a reasonable request. The Government are still studying the report and 1 suggest that the matter might be pursued through the usual channels.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Will the Leader of the House consider seriously some of the questions that have been raised about the salary paid to the Prime Minister's economic adviser? In particular, will he consider discussing the matter with the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, because it could have a serious effect on the morale of others in the public service who are striving for adequate wage increases?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I should have thought that the significance of the salary to be paid to the Prime Minister's economic adviser was that the burden that might otherwise have fallen on public funds is to be shared between public and private sources. It is surely a matter for congratulation rather than condemnation that part of the salary will not be borne by public funds.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye from the start. We shall then move on to the statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

I shall not bore my right hon. Friend by telling him what I would like in my stocking for Christmas, but I should like to know whether he can confirm that the debate on the Scottish rate support grant will be held on the Wednesday of the week that we return.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am happy to place that rather inadequate gift in my hon. Friend's stocking. For the convenience of the House, we have arranged for a separate debate on the Scottish rate support grant order. It will be taken not in the first week back but shortly after we return.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I know that disablement is not a matter of riveting concern to some members of the Government, but did the Leader of the House hear the Prime Minister's pathetically inadequate response to questions about the provision for the International Year of Disabled Persons? Does he recognise that the year is not simply a matter of Motability but relates to housing, employment, social services, health and all the matters concerning disabled people? We need a debate on the year, instead of the response that we had from the Prime Minister a few minutes ago.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Prime Minister, along with other members of the Government, shares concern for the disabled. It is important to provide help for those in such circumstances, and that is the policy of the Government.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

May we have a statement on the British hostages in Tehran before the House rises? The Government imposed sanctions on Iran in order to help facilitate the release of the American hostages. Since it seems that the Americans will get their people out, perhaps before Christmas or shortly after, could we protest to the Americans that they are abandoning our hostages, who are languishing in prison in Tehran?

Mr. 'St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. We have great sympathy for the American hostages in Iran, but, owing to the concentration of publicity on them, the plight of the four British hostages has been overlooked, to a certain extent, by the media, though not by the Government. We shall continue our efforts to secure their release.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman put in the Prime Minister's stocking a copy of St. Francis' prayer, in the hope that the rest of her Government's life will conform more closely to the charitable requirements of St. Francis' divine invocation?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

As usual, the hon. Gentleman is not totally accurate. That prayer was written not by St. Francis but by an Anglican divine of the last century. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."] If I had given a copy of the prayer to my right hon. Friend, it would have been a truly ecumenical gesture. I am prepared to put anything in my right hon. Friend's stocking except the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds).

Mr. Faulds

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it acceptable for the Leader of the House to rupture years of religious tradition with this extraordinary innovatory news?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has got me puzzled, as well as everyone else.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the desperately serious problem that will arise in New Zealand, which has already suffered a great deal, if there is not an agreement on import quotas before 31 December? Shall we have a statement before the House rises on what will happen if no agreement is reached?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a statement before the House rises. The subject is being pursued in Brussels, and I have no special knowledge of how the negotiations are going. Of course, we attach great importance to the protection of New Zealand interests.

If I may return to the previous question relating to the authorship of the prayer, the truth will out. The hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) may not have known of the true authorship, but I assure him that what I said is true.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

Before we get the debate that I hope we shall get soon on the International Year of Disabled Persons, will the Leader of the House ensure that the House receives a published work showing how each European country treats each category of the disabled, so that we can see in what sort of position we are?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly consider that suggestion. Anything that we can do to help the disabled is welcomed by the Government.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Renfrewshire, East)

Further to my right hon. Friend's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill), since eight hon. Members from both sides of the House saw the Secretary of State for Industry this week to discuss the Talbot company, does my right hon. Friend agree that any debate on the car industry should cover the whole industry and should not be limited solely to British Leyland?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I recognise that many hon. Members have constituency interests in the motor industry. Indeed, it is a subject of general concern. I shall certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said when we are arranging a debate.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

What emerged from the meeting that the Leader of the House promised to have this morning with the Secretary of State for Scotland about the three colleges of education, the existence of which is under threat because of the destructive policies of the Government?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I had a meeting this morning with my right hon. Friend and we discussed the colleges of education. The hon. Gentleman must accept that with the decline in school rolls it is not possible to maintain in existence 10 colleges of education.

Mr. Canavan

Why not?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Because colleges of education exist to provide teachers to teach pupils. If the pupils are not there, it is no service to the teachers to train them for jobs that are not in existence. That seems to me obvious. I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the talks on the Roman Catholic colleges of education are proceeding in a very cordial atmosphere.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the Rayner report on regional structure? Is he aware of the ridiculous proposal, made on the basis of that report by the Government yesterday to exclude Cumbria from the Northern region and for a regional director to divide his time between the Northern region, the Humberside region and the Yorkshire region? Is he aware of the effect that such penny-pinching proposals might have on the existing serious situation in the North of England?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall look into that matter at the request of the hon. Gentleman. 1 am afraid that I cannot promise an early debate on the subject.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Reverting to a previous point, will the Leader of the House commend to the House the Procedure Committee's suggestion that there should be a certain number of days to discuss Select Committee reports that would be neither Government nor Opposition days? Will he also bear in mind that it is even more important to provide time on a bipartisan basis to discuss the annual reports of the Commission of this House? So far, there have been two reports. We are almost three-quarters of the way through a third financial period. We are liable to find a situation in which reports of the Commission are never discussed.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's second request concerning the reports of the Commission when a suitable opportunity occurs. On the question of the recommendation of the Procedure Committee that formal days should be set aside, I believe that the important issue is that days should be provided. The formal structure is of lesser importance.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his judgment that the Committee stage of the Nationality Bill should not be taken on the Floor of the House? Contrary to his view that this is not a constitutional Bill, does he not recognise that this will be the first time that anyone in this country or anyone in the House has had a citizenship of his own'? Is he aware that we are unique in the world in that situation? If that is not a constitutional change, what on earth is?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not think that the Nationality Bill is a constitutional Bill in the normally accepted sense of the word, which is a Bill concerned with the machinery of Government. It is the Government's intention that the Bill should be sent upstairs.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

I support fully the call made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition regarding debates on unemployment. The Leader of the House will have seen early-day motion 58.

[That this House, appalled at the recently published unemployment figures for inner Liverpool which show over 60 per cent. unemployed and the 30,000 unemployed youngsters on Merseyside under the age of 20 years, congratulates the Labour Party for the massive demonstration of the unemployed in Liverpool on 29th November; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Employment to initiate urgent Government proposals to reduce unemployment in Liverpool and the regions and to offer his resignation.]

The motion concerns unemployment in Liverpool, which is the highest in the United Kingdom. It has now been signed by 170 hon. Members. Will the Leader of the House consider having debates when we return after the recess, not only on Liverpool but on the regions?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am, of course, aware that the unemployment situation in Liverpool, and on Merseyside in general, is among the worst in the country. The Government have recognised that situation through the special aid measures for that area. On the matter of debates, I can only repeat that we have gone out of our way to make a Supply day available. If the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Cabinet choose to devote that day to a debate on unemployment, with particular reference to Merseyside, that is a matter for them.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

Has the Leader of the house seen early-day motion 87, about the Prime Minister's economic adviser?

[That this House expresses its concern at the decision of the Prime Minister to appoint Professor Alan Walters as her Chief Economic Adviser: deplores the fact that£21,500 of Professor Walters' annual salary is to be paid by the far-right wing "Centre for Policy Studies" organisation; regrets that this appointment reflects a continued obsession of the Prime Minister with hard line monetarist policies notwithstanding the damage they have done to the nation: and considers that the total amount of the salary is an affront to the British people who have been impoverished by monetarist policies.]

Will he find time for a debate in view of the fact that, although the Government are making an appeal to steel workers and car workers not to take any increase in wages at the present time because of economic difficulties, the Government are appointing an adviser at a cost of£100,000 for a two-year contract? Can we debate this matter together with the Select Committee report?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is not reasonable of the hon. Gentleman to compare an appointment of this nature with the workers' salaries that he has in mind. One has to compare like with like. One has to compare economic advisers' salaries with the salaries of those working in the same sphere. In order to secure the services of the person concerned, it was necessary to offer a salary comparable to the salary that he was receiving. It should be a matter of congratulation that the burden of that salary will not fall entirely on public funds.

Mr. Foot

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the Government have enough mad professors advising them as it is, both inside and outside the Government? Surely they do not want any more, even on the laws of supply and demand. I should like to take up the right hon. Gentleman's reply about the Nationality Bill. Questions of citizenship surely touch upon constitutional issues. I urge the Government once again to consider the matter afresh. We take the view that the Bill should be taken on the Floor of the House.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The right hon. Gentleman has answered his own point. He said that the Bill will "touch on constitutional issues". A Bill touching on constitutional issues is not a constitutional Bill in the accepted sense of the word. That is a perfectly valid distinction made by the Leader of the Opposition. As to professors, mad or otherwise, they seem to have been employed by successive Governments. Whether this has been a wise policy we shall see. It is, however, about time that we got some good professors advising the Government.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

In view of the widespread public concern about the reduction in commuter services and the increase in commuter fares, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to an early debate on this important matter in the new year?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am aware of the expression in the House of the desire for a debate. We have had it from the hon. Gentleman and from the Leader of the Opposition and other Members. I shall consider the matter.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Leader of the House consider yet again the possibility of a debate on the United States presence in this country, which has never been debated in the House and which has never been properly and fully authorised? Such a debate would afford the chance to discuss the relationship between the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the stores of nuclear weapons that are unsupervised by the inspectorate.

In view of the comments about better prison conditions arising out of different sentencing policies, will the right hon. Gentleman also consider a debate on the whole of the judiciary, who are accountable to the people, to see whether the judiciary is working properly, adequately and, on the whole, fairly?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The American defence presence in this country is relevant to a number of debates that have taken place in the House. The hon. Gentleman has managed to raise the issue on a number of occasions. I do not, therefore, think that there is a need for an early debate. With regard to the judiciary, it would be a very good thing if Opposition Members occasionally paid tribute to the judiciary for their high standards, integrity and independence. It is they who stand for the maintenance of the rule of law.

Mr. Speaker

Order. There are two hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye. I have already made a statement on the number of hon. Members that I would call, but as we are approaching Christmas I shall call both hon. Members.

Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)

In view of the persistent criticism of the appointment of Professor Walters, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made at an early stage indicating that Her Majesty's Government agree with the view of that professor about the effect that the Common Market will have on the standard of living of the British people, and then the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) and other hon. Members will no doubt agree that his advice is not worth£50,000 a year but a good deal more than£50 million a year?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not know whether to rejoice or lament at that expression of support. If it puts me in an embarrassing position, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition must be even more embarrassed.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I am not sure, Mr. Speaker, whether my question is not more properly addressed to you as a point of order following an earlier point of order that I made to you and which you were kind enough to indicate that you would consider regarding the appropriateness of the Nationality Bill being considered as a constitutional Bill and whether this was a matter that lay within the definition of the Chair or whether you, as Speaker, could give the House guidance.

This afternoon we heard from the Leader of the House, who is an acknowledged constitutional historian, the somewhat astonishing doctrine that the constitution is concerned solely with the machinery of Government. On an earlier occasion, Mr. Speaker, I asked you whether you could give the House guidance on the question whether it was appropriate for Bills to be considered as constitutional Bills and whether the precedents give us assistance. You were kind enough to indicate that you considered it a serious question, to which you would give some thought.

I appreciate that it may not be the right time, Christmas impending or otherwise, to raise the matter, but you may feel that it is helpful, Mr. Speaker, to know that I am still interested in the question.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his gentle reminder. I hope that when we return from the recess I shall be able to give him an answer, although I doubt whether it is a matter for my judgment. However, I shall consider the matter.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish you not only happy constitutional reflections but a happy Christmas. May your stocking be full.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John Silkin

Further to that point of order, Mr, Speaker. I hope that both stockings will be filled. While you are reflecting on the constitutionality of the Bill relating to nationality, may I suggest that the matter should also be reflected upon between the usual channels?

Mr. Speaker

As I do not expect there to be as many hon. Members in the Chamber later, I wish to extend to the House good wishes for a peaceful Christmas and, for us all, a successful new year.