HC Deb 24 January 1980 vol 977 cc645-54
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. St. John-Stevas)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 28 JANUARY—Debate on East-West relations and the crisis in South-West Asia, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 29 JANUARY—Supply [10th Allotted Day]. Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate on an Opposition motion on gas prices.

Afterwards, there will be consideration of a timetable motion on the Education (No. 2) Bill.

Second Reading of the Residential Homes Bill [Lords] and proceedings on the Child Care Bill [Lords], and the Foster Children Bill [Lords], which are consolidation measures.

Motion on the Income Tax (Excess Interest as Distributions) Order.

WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the National Heritage Bill.

Motions relating to the Provision of Milk and Meals (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations and the Milk and Meals (Education) (Scotland) Regulations.

THURSDAY 31 JANUARY—Debate on the 7th report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution relating to agriculture and pollution, Cmnd. 7644.

FRIDAY 1 FEBRUARY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY—A debate on Welsh affairs.

Mr. Callaghan

Is the Leader of the House aware that, apart from what is set down, we do not accept the Government's attitude on the steel industry, and that we expect them to accept responsibility for the paralysis that is now spreading across our country and to give regular reports about the impact of the steel strike on British industry and the economy of the country as a whole? We shall ask for regular reports from the appropriate Minister.

Secondly, on the question of gas prices, certainly it will be our hope that we shall be given a coherent explanation of how, by putting up gas prices higher than necessary, we shall keep inflation down.

As for the timetable motion on the Education (No. 2) Bill, I suppose that the right hon. Gentleman is again trying to evade responsibility. Are we not now reaching the most sensitive parts of the Bill, relating to transport, school meals and school milk? Is the right hon. Gentleman trying to hide these sensitive clauses behind a guillotine motion? Does he realise that that will not be accepted by the country?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with the questions on steel very effectively during her Question Time. The right hon. Gentleman must not expect to do any better against me than he did against my right hon. Friend.

Gas prices will, of course, be debated at the appropriate time.

As for the guillotine motion, no less than 73 hours have been spent on the Biil so far, including a major debate on the assisted places scheme. If the Committee has not reached the later clauses, as from now a large part of the responsibility must rest with those who delayed proceedings by spending no less than 12 hours on points of order and 11 hours delivering extremely long speeches.

Mr. Callaghan

Is the Leader of the House aware that I have been told that 79½ hours have been spent on the Bill and that 16 clauses and three schedules have been completed. The Committee is now well into clause 17, and progress is being made. However, we shall return to this argument on Tuesday, because we do not believe that such a sensitive Bill should be guillotined at this stage. It should have been possible to come to an agreement.

With reference to the right hon. Gentleman's views about my doing better against him than against the Prime Minister, I well realise the heavy metal that the Leader of the House carries, and I would not expect to do well against him. We all know what a formidable opponent he is.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall pass over in silence the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition, save to say that he seems to be showing signs of metal fatigue.

By the time the motion is accepted by the House, if the House passes it, no fewer than 100 hours will have been spent on the Bill. There are two examples of the previous Labour Administration producing guillotine motions on Bills just as important as this Bill when only two-thirds of that time had been devoted to them.

Mr. Adley

As not everyone outside the House appreciates that the Opposition choose the subject for debate on Supply days, will my right hon. Friend confirm that despite the massive display of humbug by the Leader of the Opposition they have chosen not to debate the steel industry strike, but, instead, merely to try to make opportunist political capital out of the Government's energy policies, which are an attempt to conserve our gas supplies?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The subject for Supply days has nothing to do with me. It is entirely in the hands of the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Kinnock

For reasons of sensitivity, and out of consideration for the right hon. Gentleman, I do not want to expose his general illiteracy about the Education (No. 2) Bill, but is he aware that however long we have taken on points of order—which is considerably less than he said—three of those hours were necessary to induce from his representatives in the Committee a statement giving a general exemption to councillors who are also parents, to enable them to debate milk and transport matters? Had the Government been more forthcoming or more competent in that respect we could have saved at least three hours on that matter.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am aware of that, because I have followed the proceedings on the Bill very closely. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that if he had restrained his supporters from raising all those points of order there could have been substantial further discussion on the issues in the Bill.

Mr. du Cann

When does my right hon. Friend expect to table the motion for the establishment of the Liaison Committtee? Is he aware that many hon. Members who are concerned with the work of Select Committees believe that that work will be much facilitated when that Committee is established?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. No one would be happier than I to be able to table that motion in full, but there are certain technical difficulties over names that we are still trying to iron out. As soon as that is done, the motion will be tabled. I hope that by early next week the full motion will be down.

Mr. John Home Robertson

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion No. 342, relating to unemployment in Scotland:

[That this House notes with alarm and anger the fact that unemployment in Scotland has now risen above 200,000, an increase of almost 40,000 since May 1979, resulting from the doctrinaire policies of the present Government; and calls on the Leader of the House to provide time for an early debate on the Floor of the House on the deepening economic crisis enveloping Scotland.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the increase last month of 5.6 per cent. in the level of unemployment in Scotland? Is he further aware that unemployment is reaching appalling levels in some areas? At Tranent, in my constituency, male unemployment stands at 24.7 per cent. Will he arrange an early debate on Scottish affairs?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am certainly concerned about unemployment in Scotland.

Mr. Canavan

Then do something about it.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is no use saying "Do something about it". The previous Labour Government presided over a doubling of Scottish unemployment in less than a year. I am concerned about the situation in Scotland and I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland about it.

Mr. Hill

Has my right hon. Friend noted an early-day motion calling for a debate on the microchip revolution and its impact on industry, on the information services that it will provide in future and on unemployment?

[That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to provide time for an early debate on the progress and widening application of micro-computer technology in view of its likely impact on industry and society and the investment being made from all sources in the production of silicon chips.]

Could we have a day's debate on the serious subject of the microchip industry and its possible revolutionary impact?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is an extremely important subject. There is interest in this matter on both sides of the House. I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend said. Perhaps I may point out that the microchip revolution may offer opportunities for fresh employment as well as threatening existing employment.

Mr. Dubs

The Leader of the House will be aware of increasing concern about the prison system. When will the House have an opportunity to debate that subject, particularly as the May report on prisons is gathering dust on our shelves?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am aware of the importance of the May report. Certain consultations are going on with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I hope that before too long it will be possible to have a debate on that important report.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the last time a timetable motion was introduced on an education Bill he said that it was incompetence on the part of the Government's business managers? Is that the reason this time, or is it that we are reaching clauses in the Education (No. 2) Bill that he and the Conservative Party find deeply embarrassing, because they discriminate against country and Catholic children?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Education (No. 2) Bill in Committee has been dealt with most effectively by Ministers. It was making good progress until it was obstructed by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) and his followers.

Sir Frederic Bennett

Last week the Leader of the House was widely reported as having made a call, outside the House, for the publication of the mysterious Underhill report. Has he since then received a request from any source on the Opposition Benches for a debate on that subject?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My only knowledge of the present state of the Underhill report is gained from this morning's papers.

Mr. John Fraser

Is the Leader of the House aware of the attempt by the Secretary of State for Trade and the Minister for Consumer Affairs to avoid any responsibility for answering questions about consumer price inflation and the fact that that has been done by way of a written statement that does not yet appear in Hansard? May we have a statement that will give us a chance to explore the opportunities for asking the Department of Trade about a matter of the greatest concern to consumers, namely, the high rate of inflation?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

There has been a very full written statement—[Interruption.] All right, we can read. There has been a full written statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who also dealt with this matter orally at Question Time.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs, who dealt with this matter in the debate recently, showed the House full courtesy when she gave an advance indication of the Government's intention. Therefore, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has any complaint.

Mr. Murphy

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion No. 343, which would give trade unionists the opportunity of contracting in to paying the political levy:

[That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to consider reverting to the practice of enabling trades union members to contract-in to paying the political levy rather than having to contract out.]

Will my right hon. Friend indicate whether the sponsors of the motion will have the opportunity of an early debate on the matter?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I cannot promise an early debate on that subject. The content of my hon. Friend's motion would be right if one were to consider the matter as an abstract problem, but in the practical situation that we have today, of trade union relations, and so on, it would be difficult to implement it.

Mr. Dormand

What is the significance of the Leader of the House saying that X hours have been devoted to the Education (No. 2) Bill? It must surely be related to the content of the Bill itself. For example, one would not compare that Bill with the Education Act 1944, on which literally hundreds of hours were spent. The Education (No. 2) Bill is one of the most controversial Bills to come before the House and, as my right hon Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, we are now coming to the controversial parts of it. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore reconsider this matter?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not think that I should reconsider it. As I have endeavoured to make plain, the responsibility for the delay rests with the hon. Member for Bedwellty and the policy that he has adopted towards the Bill. I suggest that, as there are up to 25 hours more of debate available in Committee, he use that opportunity to debate the clauses instead of raising points of order.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I should inform the House that a very large number of right hon. and hon. Members have indicated to me that they hope to speak in the debate on nuclear arms. It will be impossible to call them all. We also have a statement, and then an application under Standing Order No. 9. Therefore, I propose to call four more hon. Members from either side.

Mr. Latham

If we are to have a statement on the steel strike next week, would this not be a suitable occasion for the Leader of the Opposition to tell us whether he favours a ballot before private sector steel workers are brought out on strike?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition has heard that question and that he will take an opportunity to answer it.

Mr. Faulds

As the Leader of the House is a renowned constitutional expert, will he advise the Prime Minitser that if she does not feel competent to take on the full responsibilities of premiership she is constitutionally entitled to visit Her Majesty the Queen and chuck her hand in?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Prime Minister is exercising her functions as Prime Minister. It is not part of those functions to attempt to run British industry—that is for the parties concerned. We saw what happened last winter, when the Labour Government were in power. They meddled and muddled throughout the winter.

Mr. Henderson

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is growing impatience for a debate about information processing? There is a particular and urgent need for a debate on the revelation of the Computer Sub-Committee of the Services Committee about the Library indexing system and its escalating cost to the House.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am Chairman of the Services Committee. We keep the affairs of this House, including those mentioned by my hon. Friend, under continuous review.

Mr. Ashley

Will the Leader of the House look at two early-day motions concerning vaccine-damaged children? One motion deals with the present inadequate payment scheme, which is full of anomalies.

[That this House calls for an urgent review of the vaccine damage payments scheme, noting that a mere 366 claims have been accepted out of 2,525 applicants; urges that the benefit of any doubt should be given to the claimant rather than the present requirement which states the opposite; and urges the Government to amend the provisions which exclude those children who are less than 80 per cent. disabled by the vaccines, those disabled before 1948 and the families of those children who have died.]

The other motion calls for a proper compensation scheme.

[That this House deplores the Government's refusal to establish a compensation scheme for vaccine-damaged children; endorses the view of the Pearson Royal Commission that there is a special case for paving compensation for vaccine damage where vaccination is recommended by public authority and is undertaken to protect the community; recognises that the Vaccine Damage Payment Act does not purport to provide a compensation scheme; and calls upon the Government to introduce a compensation scheme as favourable to vaccine-damaged children as the industrial injuries and war pension schemes are to the industrially injured and war disabled.]

As the parents of those children are meeting to discuss these issues at the weekend, can we have a debate on those motions some time next week?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's interest in these problems and of his contribution towards solving them. This will be one of the Government's priorities, when resources become available.

Mr. Farr

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to reflect on a question that I asked before, concerning the amount of time that a Foreign Office Minister is available to answer questions in the House? With the quickening pace of international events, 30 minutes every four weeks is inadequate.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I have sympathy with that point. I have received representations from a number of hon. Members from different parts of the House and I have held conversations with them. I hope that within a reasonable time we shall be able to make an adjustment that will he satisfactory to all hon. Members.

Mr. Straw

Is the Leader of the House aware of the mounting crisis in the Lancashire textile industry? Both management and the trade unions are concerned about the future of that industry. The only major debate on textiles that we have had concerned the woollen textile industry. Will the Leader of the House consider carefully whether a debate on this industry can be arranged?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly do that.

Mr. Dykes

As the Services Committee is meeting next week, is my right hon. Friend more optimistic that a sensible system of agreed but limited access for Euro- pean Members can be proposed for discussion? [Hon. MEMBERS: "No."] Could such proposals be laid soon after that meeting?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am always an optimist and I hope that reason will prevail. However, the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) is on record as saying that he feels that this matter should be decided on the Floor of the House. I must take that into account, together with other considerations. I hope that hon. Members will be reasonable.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will the Leader of the House assure us that no Government time will be available for a debate on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly give no such undertaking. That is a hypothetical question. The only precedent for it was made by the Labour Government, who provided time so that the House of Commons could come to a conclusion on that issue.

Mr. John Smith

Is the Leader of the House aware that in the written answer referred to earlier by the Prime Minister the allocation of responsibilities is such that hon. Members who wish to ask questions about the retail price index must address them to the Secretary of State for Employment? Does that make sense?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

In her reply my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was guided by considerations of where ministerial responsibility lies. However, if the right hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied, I shall look into the question again and see whether it is satisfactory and for the convenience of hon. Members.

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