HC Deb 20 March 1980 vol 981 cc641-50

The relevant published reports of the European Legislation Committee are as follows: 4845/80 (Budget Questions): 20th Report HC 159-xx Para. 1. 5394/79 (Harmful Substances): 6th Report HC 159-vi Para. 2.

Mr. Callaghan

I understand that the Budget debate is to take four days, which is normal, but there is a day owing to the House on the public expenditure White Paper. I appreciate that the Government are running into difficulties because of the Easter Recess, but will the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a separate debate on the White Paper after Easter? Otherwise, there will be a departure from the usual practice, which will be ungenerous to the House. I am sure that that is not the right hon. Gentleman's intention.

Secondly, I appreciate that the Leader of the House has moved the EEC budget debate to Monday, instead of putting it on tonight after all the agriculture measures, but the debate on the Transport Bill could run on. The budget debate is important not only for this House but for its impact on Europe, and it should have publicity. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the debate will start not later than 10 o'clock on Monday, with the remainder of the Transport Bill on Tuesday? Even then it will be difficult to get publicity, but it is important that we should not start the budget debate at midnight, or some other ragged time, because the Transport Bill is running on.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said in relation to myself.

The public expenditure White Paper will be relevant to the Budget debate. However, the right hon. Gentleman's request for a day at a later stage is very reasonable, and I shall certainly give that sympathetic consideration.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be desirable for the debate on the EEC budgetary document to start at about 10 o'clock. Thanks to convergence through the usual channels, I understand that that is likely to come about. I am grateful for that facility, which will be for the benefit of the whole House.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Will my right hon. Friend say whether there is likely to be a Supply day before the Easter Recess? Will it be possible, through the usual channels, to have a debate on an industrial dispute that is likely to occur after Easter, which is important but not urgent under the rules of the House and which concerns the NALGO threat not to collect rates from owner-occupiers but to carry on collecting from council tenants?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am afraid that there is not room for a Supply day before the recess. I am also afraid that there will not be a day for a discussion of the important matter that my hon. Friend raises. However, I am sure that he will manage to have it discussed in some other way.

Mr. Cryer

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the textile industry? Is he aware that in January and February there were half as many redundancies in the West Yorkshire textile industry as in the whole of 1979? Is he further aware that the textile and clothing industry is the third largest employer in this country and is of vital importance? Will he accept that unless the Government are prepared to give time for a debate people will rightly conclude that they do not care about the Lancashire and Yorkshire textile industry and its workers?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It would be wrong to conclude that the Government are not concerned about the textile industry, which has been the subject of statements and questions in the House. I am afraid that I cannot promise a debate before the recess.

Mr. du Cann

Reverting to the first matter raised by the Leader of the Opposition—it is very much in the interests of the House—namely, that due to the late publication of the public expenditure White Paper we have missed the opportunity for debate early in the year, does my right hon. Friend agree that instead of having a day soon after the Budget debate it would be preferable to have it a little later in the year? The House would then have an opportunity to re-and its timing with my right hon. Friend, bear in mind that other days appear to be slipping from the programme? For example, a debate on the reports of the Public Accounts Committee is overdue.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his suggestion. I shall be happy to discuss such a debate and its timing with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members to see what is most convenient for the House as a whole.

I also note my right hon. Friend's remarks about a debate on the Public Accounts Committee. I hope to be able to satisfy him within a reasonable time.

I believe that there is some advantage in relating the publication of the public expenditure White Paper to the Budget, so that matters can be discussed together.

Mr. Spearing

Is the Leader of the House aware that many Back Benchers with an interest in the EEC budget convergence document are grateful to him for changing the time of the debate? However, will he assure the house that in future he will not mix his subjects, which creates more trouble than it is worth? Does he agree that certain problems relating to the documents arise from tardy consideration of the recommendations of the Select Committee on procedure concerning EEC documents, and particularly their consideration upstairs? What consultations has he had since the topic was raised, six months ago?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Consultations have been taking place.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I cannot agree that subjects were mixed. About 70 per cent. of the EEC budget is concerned with agricultural matters. Following representations made to me, and after the most generous response from the Opposition Front Bench over the Transport Bill, I was able to make a rearrangement more for the convenience of all hon. Members.

Mr. James Callaghan

My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) tells me that Government amendments were tabled on the Transport Bill on Tuesday, Wednesday and again today. There are four new clauses and 61 amendments. We want to co-operate to try to get the Transport Bill through. However, will the right hon. Gentleman have a word with the Minister of Transport and ask him to restrain his enthusiasm for more amendments? Otherwise, the House is likely to have to sit through Tuesday night.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am always glad to have a word with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. However, the progress that we make on Monday and Tuesday is determined not only by the number of amendments but by the attitude of hon. Members. I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the co-operation on this matter.

Mr. John Page

During the coming week will the Leader of the House discuss with Mr. Speaker, if that is appropriate, or through other channels, an arrangement whereby hon. Members taking their seats after by-elections may be called immediately at the end of Question Time, instead of having to wait for other business, so that the many by-election victors in the Conservative Party will not have to wait so long for the cheers and applause that they will receive from the House as a whole?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is an interesting suggestion. I hope that my hon. Friend will not live to regret it. I shall consider it.

Mr. Foulkes

Is the Leader of the House aware of the unsatisfactory way in which Scottish business is dealt with, in respect of statements? The Secretary of State for Education and Science has made statements that cover Scotland, and other statements about Scotland have been covered by written answers. Will the Leader of the House, either in all-party discussions or in some other way, consider some means by which Scottish Members can have an opportunity to cross-question the Secretary of State for Scotland when major announcements about Scotland are made?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Member has made a valid point. However, sometimes it is not possible to have two separate statements, and frequently Scotland has to take second place. I do not see why that should always be so, and I shall certainly consult the Secretary of State to see whether the position can be improved in any way. Scotland has rights in the House, and they should be recognised.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

May I remind my right hon. Friend that more than two months have now passed since he promised the House a debate on British Leyland's corporate plan? I recognise that next week is fully occupied, but will he bear in mind that in the light of the latest accounts from British Leyland, this is becoming a matter of some urgency? Will he assure the House that he will fulfil that promise in the near future?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I promise my hon. Friend that the promise will be fulfilled. However, I cannot promise to do it next week.

Mr. Flannery

Is the Leader of the House aware that on the 1 o'clock television news, one of the leaders of a Civil Service union whose members deal with income tax expressed the opinion that the payment of more than £10,000 million per annum due to the Inland Revenue was now being dodged? Does he not think that this is such a monumental scandal that it demands, in its own right, a major debate, in view of the fact that we now have 1,000 new inspectors to seek up to £4 million or £5 million lost in tax dodges? Does he not think that there should be an early debate on such a major issue?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I did not hear the broadcast in question. It is an important matter, but I do not know whether we can have a debate on it. However, I shall certainly take it up with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor, who is responsible for the Inland Revenue.

Mr. Marlow

Am I right in believing that the only debate on the European budget—which deprives Britain of £1,310 million that is fundamental to the economic programme of the Government and to various other programmes—will be on Monday night, starting at 10 o'clock? If so, will my right hon. Friend say how long that debate will be? Is it because the House can do damn-all about it that the debate is of such relatively short duration?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Subject to the co-operation of the Opposition, I hope that we shall be able to have a three-hour debate. That will enable any vote to take place at not too late an hour.

I do not rule out a further debate on the subject. Let us see what happens after the Brussels conference. There will be a statement in the House, and we can review the situation then.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye, but I hope that they will help the House by asking brief questions.

Mr. Faulds

Will the Leader of the House look into the possibility of extending the time available for discussing arts questions, which at present stand at the derisory figure of 10 minutes in the month, particularly since more and more hon. Members are now evincing an interest in such matters, as is evidenced by the attendance at recent Question Times?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am aware that the time allocated to arts questions is not excessive, but there was no special question period allocated to the arts under the previous Government. Hon. Members who wished to raise matters on arts subjects had to take their chance during education questions. For the first time in the history of the House, we now have a special time for arts questions. Let us see what happens. I am keeping an eye on the matter. I would be the first person—in another capacity—to welcome more questions on the arts, particularly in view of the record grant that has been given to the Arts Council this year and the very favourable reception that it has received from all parts of the arts world.

Mr. Rooker

When will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the report of the Select Committee on Members' interests? Does he realise that it will be seen outside the House as nothing short of a scandal if the House has one further debate on Members' pay—such a debate is bound to take place before the summer —if we have not disposed of the disquieting report that was sent to the House and to the Leader of the House several weeks ago. He must arrange a debate as soon as possible.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I have had discussions with the Chairman of the relevant Committee on the subject, and if there is an opportunity for a debate in the reasonably near future I shall be happy to facilitate it. However, I do not think that it is the most urgent problem under consideration.

Mr. Norman Hogg

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that there will be a debate about early-day motion 505, standing in my name and in the names of several of my hon. Friends?

[That this House deplores the failure of the employer's side of the National Joint Council for Local Authorities Administrative, Professional, Technical and Cleri- cal Staffs to honour their commitment to local government officers on pay comparability, thus precipitating the present dispute; and calls upon the Government to impress urgently upon the local authority employers the need to reach an agreement consistent with the pledges given at the commencement of the joint comparability study.]

The motion refers to the dispute that is emerging in local government and the action of the National Association of Local Government Officers, which has been precipitated by the dishonourable action of the employers' side on the national joint council. It is a serious matter.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not wish to become involved with the hon. Gentleman in a debate on the subject, because it is not an appropriate matter for debate in the House. The subject of his motion is a matter for discussion and debate between the local authorities and the union concerned.

Mr. Jay

Is it not unprecedented that there has been no defence debate in the House and no defence White Paper before the Budget? Why have the Government got into this further muddle?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

There is no muddle. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the White Paper on public expenditure was delayed because of the reviews that were taking place on public expenditure. The review on the defence White Paper was part of that overall review of public expenditure. Therefore, they were both bound to be published somewhat later than usual. The White Paper will be published shortly before Easter, and I shall consider the opportunity for a debate at a convenient moment.

Mr. Allen McKay

Will the Minister consider another debate on the steel industry, in view of the continuation of the present strike, the number of people who have now been laid off, and the fact that the Secretary of State for Industry has not made a statement to the House for a considerable time?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am extremely concerned, as are other members of the Government, about that strike, both because it is damaging to our economy and because of the distress that it is causing to individuals. I hope that in a short time it will be possible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to make a statement to the House. That must depend on the progress made by the parties to the dispute. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is not the policy of the Government to intervene in the dispute. We would welcome its end by a freely negotiated settlement between the parties.

Mr. Douglas

Will the Leader of the House consider pressing his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement to the House about the seventh round of licences, depletion policy, and the future of the BNOC? Because of their fundamental relationship to the Government's fiscal policy, should not that statement be made before the Budget debate?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I cannot promise the hon. Member that, but I assure him that the Government's policy of involving private capital in the BNOC remains unchanged.

Mr. Ioan Evans

On the question of the steel dispute, if we cannot have a debate can we have a statement on the serious situation that is developing as a result of the strike? Does the Leader of the House realise that hundreds of millions of pounds are being lost every week by the National Coal Board, the Gas Board, the Central Electricity Generating Board and British Railways, and that the private sector is finding life extremely difficult? The Government say that they have not intervened, but that is wrong. They have done so on cash limits, which is what caused the strike in the first place. Will the right hon. Member look at this seriously and agree to a statement being made next week?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I would be very glad if there were something constructive to say on this, but it really depends on the course of the negotiations, which I hope will be resumed and will result in a successful outcome.