HC Deb 02 May 1980 vol 983 cc1764-71

Mr. Foot (by private notice) asked the Leader of the House whether he will make a statement about next week's business in the light of the statement by the Secretary of State for Industry yesterday on the appointment of the new chairman of the British Steel Corporation and the conditions attached thereto.

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

I have considered carefully the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman about the need to reconsider next week's business in the light of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry regarding the appointment of the new chairman of the British Steel Corporation.

Yesterday my right hon. Friend made a very full statement about the appointment, and the House had a good opportunity to question him on the matter. I do not feel therefore that I should make a statement about reconsidering next week's business.

Mr. Foot

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the mingle anger and derision with which his right hon. Friend's statement was received throughout the country? Does he not recognise that the House of Commons has a right to pronounce on these questions? Does he not further recognise that from different quarters of the House and throughout the country it is considered a serious matter? For the House to leave it to fester for several days on end is a gross piece of delinquency on the part of the Government.

We believe that the appointment raises questions about the competence of the Secretary of State for Industry. I therefore urge the Government once again to answer our plea for a debate next week on this important subject, which affects a great industry in the country and our standards of public life.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The right hon. Gentleman may be right in saying that there has been anger and derision among some people about this appointment, but the reaction of others has been quite different. Their reaction has been that the important thing is to achieve the best man for this job and they are aware that we are acting not within the confines of Britain but in an international market.

Next week's business was arranged, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, after a great real of careful discussion through the usual channels. I adapted that business throughout the period in order to meet the wishes of the right hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition. It is very important business indeed, including consideration of the public expenditure White Paper and the debate on the Finance Bill. It is also a short week, because we lose Monday.

I am not saying to the right hon. Gentleman that there should be no debate on this subject if the Opposition wish to have one. However, may I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the exact timing of a debate is a matter that can be taken up through the usual channels.

Mr. Foot

Of course there were discussions about the business announced by the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, but the understanding on that business was reached before the business announcement was made. We are deeply shocked by the Secretary of State's statement, and believe that the House should discuss it as swiftly as possible. If the Secretary of State has a case to make, let him make it as soon as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman says that there is no time next week, but we could have a debate on Tuesday. He knows very well that we have the strongest objections to the timetable motion, because we do not feel that there is justification for it. We could have a debate on the Tuesday when we meet or for the three hours after. There is plenty of time. There is no ground for the right hon. Gentleman to say that he cannot fit it in.

It is true that some people have commented favourably on the competence of the person appointed, but there has been almost universal condemnation of the Government's handling of the matter and the way that their scheme has injured the prospect. We are not sure which is greater—the derision or the anger. If the Government intended to handle the matter this way, why did they not go for Kevin Keegan straight away? He is the best in the business. Why not my old friend Brian Clough? Perhaps the Government should have special conditions to bring in Peter Taylor at the same time. That would have been more sensible.

The Government have made themselves the laughing stock of the country, apart from injuring our position. If they believe that they have a case, I urge them to face the House in a debate on the matter as swiftly as possible.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The right hon. Gentleman is speaking strangely if he seriously believes that it is such a serious matter. That is hardly the tone in which to discuss a serious matter—to make a joke about it and treat it with levity. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as anyone in the House that the vital issue is the future of the steel industry.

We cannot discuss across the Dispatch Box details of business arrangements. I believe that further discussion should take place through the usual channels, and I am always very glad to meet the right hon. Gentleman to see whether a reasonable accord can be reached.

Several Hon. Membersrose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call three hon. Members from either side. We must be fair to the London Members in view of today's debate.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I gather from what my right hon. Friend says that there might be a debate some time in the future—if not next week, the week after next. Does he agree that, if that debate is to be fruitful, the appointment of Mr MacGregor should be seen in the context of the grave problems facing the British steel industry?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am exceedingly grateful to my hon. Friend for that constructive comment. It is important to stabilise the industry and establish it on a prosperous basis for the future. It is the unanimous view of the Government that the right man to achieve that is Mr. MacGregor.

Dr. Bray

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the conclusion in The Times this morning that if these were the terms on which Mr. MacGregor was willing to accept appointment he should not have been appointed? Is he further aware that it is precisely because of the needs of a great industry that the creation of a lame duck chairman, with the right hon. Gentleman by so doing becoming a lame duck Minister, is a matter that the House should debate immediately?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I always read The Times first thing in the morning. I then provide myself with an antidote by reading The Guardian. May I refer the hon. Gentleman to the leading article in The Guardian, which takes a rather different line from that in The Times That precisely underlines my point that there are different points of view.

As for the chairman, of course he is not a lame duck chairman. However, I hope that Labour Members will not expend their efforts in order to make him into a lame duck chairman by endless and unjustified criticism of the appointment.

Mr. Rees-Davies

On the Conservative Benches we all recognise the absolute determination to appoint the right man. However, at the appropriate moment there is one matter on which we should like an explanation. Given that Mr. MacGregor's salary is perfectly reasonable, a problem arises over the capital sum for releasing him from his task. Is that sum the agreed damages for breach of his existing contract? If so, it would seem large. Alternatively, is it an agreed sum paid voluntarily to enable Mr. MacGregor to be released, and on what basis was the figure arrived at? At some stage it would be useful for the public to understand how those figures were compiled, because they are substantial.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My hon. and learned Friend has raised interesting questions. As I see it, the general basis of the agreement is quite plain. Mr. MacGregor's salary will be the normal salary. A capital sum is involved which is being paid by way of compensation for the loss of his services to the firm for which he was working.

Mr. John Morris

Is not the Minister aware, after a 13-week strike in the steel industry, of the fragility of industrial relations? The sooner the Government have the opportunity of making whatever case they can, the better it will be, so that we can judge the strengths and weaknesses of that case. Is it not dangerous to avoid a debate and give the impression that Mr. MacGregor is the only man available and that these are the only terms available? The impression in the steel constituencies is that the Government have gone plain mad.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The matter was discussed first in the House yesterday and we are having further comment on the subject today. I have made it quite clear that I am not trying to avoid a debate on this matter, but I have to protect the other business of the House and the very delicate arrangements reached after weeks of negotiations through the usual channels and with the right hon. Gentleman. After a good deal of give and take on both sides, we reached an agreement that was to the satisfaction of everybody. There is no question of a debate being avoided. I have said that we can discuss the matter through the usual channels and I have given my view—

Mr. Clinton Davis

It is an urgent matter.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is not as urgent as all that. This appointment is to take effect in July. It will not make a great deal of difference if the debate is delayed for a few days. I understand the situation very well. I also understand this point—which the hon. Gentleman does not understand—that what is important here is not the making of party political capital but the future of the steel industry.

Mr. Neubert

As my right hon. Friend has referred to the shortness of the next parliamentary week, will he be assured that many of us would be willing to come in on Monday if it would assist in the progress of this business? We are reluctant to celebrate the red rag of a May Day holiday instituted by the last Labour Government for partisan political ends.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall be equally happy to come into the House on Monday. I believe that this extra bank holiday was a great mistake. But there it is—we must make the best of it. Unfortunately, I think that there are legal problems. I do not think that we would be able to summon staff to serve the House on an official bank holiday.

Mr. Foot

If the right hon. Gentleman believes that the holiday was wrong, he should not have voted for it or proposed in the House a few weeks ago a motion which sustained it.

On the matter of next week's business, no agreement was reached between the two sides of the House about the guillotine motion on Tuesday. We are bitterly opposed to the guillotine motion on every possible ground. The right hon. Gentleman says that it is difficult for him to rearrange the business for next week. That is not the case. It is possible for us to have this debate on Tuesday either in the first three hours or the second three hours.

In the interests of the steel industry, if the right hon. Gentleman is genuine in his view of the matter, he will be prepared to make that rearrangement for the reasons advanced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), who really does know something about the steel industry. The right hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the effect on the steel industry in the next week or two if he dithers in the way that he has proposed. I urge him, once again, to come to the House on Tuesday and announce that the business has been rearranged.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Leaving aside the question of bank holidays and which one is worse than another, I do not feel as strongly about this bank holiday as I do about the subsequent bank holiday which has confused our calendar by confusing the traditional religious Whitsun with a new secular holiday. That was an even greater mistake—[Interruption.] I am entitled to comment on bank holidays as well as the right hon. Gentleman and to give my view.

I pay tribute, of course, to the right hon. and learned Gentlemen's knowledge of the steel industry and to his intense personal concern because of the constituency that he represents. I do not deny for a moment that this is a matter on which it is reasonable to have a debate. But, as for the guillotine motion, I have to protect the legislation and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Social Security (No. 2) Bill must reach the statute book by a certain date so that the books can be issued and arrangements made for the payment of benefits. I must balance that consideration. I have said that, although I believe that it is not possible to rearrange the business for next week, we can, through the usual channels, discuss the possibility of finding an early day for a debate on this subject.

Several Hon. Membersrose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call one more Back Bencher from the Opposition.

Mr. Benn

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those who have the interests of the steel industry at heart believe that the announcement made yesterday was a grave error of judgment, because it damages the morale of the present management and employees in British Steel?

Will the right hon. Gentleman please publish before the debate all the transactions and negotiations between Mr. MacGregor and the Government so that the House may see what was involved? This was not a personal appointment but a contract involving enormous sums of public money and foreign exchange. The latter point is most relevant since it is widely believed that this is a wholly improper transaction bordering, in the view of many people, on bribery and corruption and that it should be discussed properly by the House of Commons.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The right hon. Gentleman has spoilt his point by absurd exaggeration. To say that a contract entered into on commercial grounds is akin to bribery and corruption is a remark which the right hon. Gentleman, if he reflects upon it, will regret having made.

The question of publishing the transactions leading to the appointment is a matter for decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. The morale of the steel industry is certainly low at the moment for a variety of reasons in which many people have a share of responsibility. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that what is important is not past morale in the steel industry but the possibility of raising morale in future. We believe that by getting the services of Mr. MacGregor for the steel industry we shall create a situation which offers a good chance that morale in the industry will be raised. That is the basis of the Government's approach.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I wish to preserve such rights as I may have to seek to move the Adjournment of the House order Standing Order No. 9 on Tuesday, and I hereby give you notice that I might do that.

May I explain one thing, Mr. Speaker? Your references at column 1643 of the Official Report of yesterday's date to taking note of conversations between the usual channels on this question mean that you may not be aware of certain facts. As you were saying those very words, the Leader of the House;—who said that he had considered the request of my right hon. Friend carefully—had left the Chamber and gone to tell the press that he had no intention of changing the business. In other words, he did that before he had considered the request of my right hon. Friend or that of anyone else. In those circumstances, it may be that I shall, on Tuesday, have to pray you in aid, Mr. Speaker, in order that we may get a debate on this issue.

Mr. Speaker

I have listened carefully to the exchanges today, which have contained clear and explicit references to a debate. I do not want to raise any false hopes on the part of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). He will of course be in order in making his application, but I do not want to leave him over a happy May Day weekend with wrong ideas.

Mr. English

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. It may be that there is in your mind the question of urgency mentioned by the Leader of the House. The urgency of the matter is this. The point that I seek to raise implies that there is no legal——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will tell me the urgency of the matter on Tuesday.

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