HC Deb 06 November 1980 vol 991 cc1547-53
Mr. Frank McElhone (Glasgow, Queen's Park)

We are advised that the Bill is mainly a consolidation measure. Nevertheless, as the Solicitor-General indicated on Second Reading, we are to repeal 17 complete Acts of Parliament and parts of 12 others. However, the House of Commons will have no real opportunity to discuss the reasons for doing so.

We are told that the Government are again on an exercise to cut public expenditure. Is the valuable time of the House of Commons being wasted? If there are any further cuts in public expenditure on overseas development, parts of the Bill will be obsolete even before it appears on the statute book. The Government are treating overseas aid and development in a mean and cavalier fashion. We hope that the Minister will make a strong recommendation that there should be a full and urgent debate on the subject.

I shall attempt to get some clarification of clause 14. I do not wish to discuss the merits of the clause, but the Minister should clarify the intention of the clause. I draw the Solicitor-General's attention to a letter that I received from the Minister for Overseas Development on 21 August 1979 when we were discussing matters relevant to the clause. At that time we were discussing education and development banks, especially the Asian Development Bank. The Minister accepted that efforts in education had been relatively small. The clause refers to the provision of teachers and further education co-operation.

In the last part of the letter from the Minister for Overseas Development—I accept that the Solicitor-General is in some difficulty because the Minister for Overseas Development is not present—the hon. Gentleman stated: I share your regret that the Caribbean Development Bank's Student Loan Scheme is not running smoothly. The Minister agreed in large measure with the concern that I expressed at that time. However, apart from the 17 Acts that are being repealed there is included on page 21 the revocation of the Asian Development Bank (Extension of Limit on Guarantees) Order 1977. That causes me to be in a state of some confusion. In the debates that took place on the bank the Minister referred to substantial sums. The Government are treating overseas development in a rather mean and callous fashion. The Opposition have only 10 minutes per month to ask oral questions on overseas development matters. Bearing in mind that The Sunday Times described the Government's response to the Brandt report as a rather shabby document, I hope that the Solicitor-General will accept the urgency of debating an issue that concerns 800 million people who are living in absolute poverty.

It is not good enough that we should be concerning ourselves with this legislation, which is circumscribed by consolidating procedures. It is grossly unfair to the House, and to the Third world in particular. It is not good enough for a Government whose Prime Minister started her career with the famous words of St. Francis of Assisi.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone). I appreciate that we cannot go into the whole policy programme of overseas aid, but we should be allowed to take the opportunity in a few minutes to voice our protest at the way that procedure of consolidation measures is conducted. It may be a matter that should be looked at by the Procedure Committee. It may be considered desirable that we should move the matter formally and then hinge a debate on wider issues on that formal motion. My hon. Friend quoted the Solicitor-General on Second Reading when he said: The Bill is a consolidation of a considerable body of law relating to the terms and conditions on which aid and assistance may be granted to overseas territories. He rightly went on to say; It will make a useful contribution to the tidying-up of the statute book. "—[Official Report, 30 October 1980; Vol. 991, c. 859.] It may be our fault that we have not followed the proceedings by which the consolidation takes place as closely as we would like. However, the Acts repealed by the schedules include two Coal Industry Acts, part of a National Health Service (Scotland) Act, part of the Electricity (Scotland) Act 1979, part of the Post Office Act 1969 and part of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967.

It is difficult for humble Back Benchers like myself to follow what is happening. We have to take a great deal on trust, and there is not that much trust on this side of the House of what the Government are doing in this or any other field. We have no chance to cross-examine them on how these 17 Acts or parts thereof are to be repealed. That is unsatisfactory.

My hon. Friend referred to the aid programme. The whole point of the debate is that we are laying down a marker. We are concerned, and I believe that large areas of the world are concerned, about the cavalier attitude of the present Government to Third world problems and our aid programme. We ask the Government to give serious and careful consideration to providing Government time for a major debate on the aid programme very early in the new Session. It would not be good enough for the Government to say that the Opposition have had their Supply Days and, if we consider the matter to be of such supreme importance, it is imperative on us to provide the time. If that is their view, let us compromise and each party provide one day of a two-day debate. The importance of the subject merits it.

There is an article in The Guardian today about the conference that is taking place in Vienna tomorrow, and at which Britain will not be represented. Our name is mud in the Third world as a direct consequence of the Government's policy. That will be compounded, because I believe that the aid programme will be further cut as a result of Cabinet decisions taken this week or shortly thereafter.

I repeat my hon. Friend's suggestion. We must insist on an early and major debate in Government time or in Government and Opposition time to enable us to have a one- or two-day debate on the aid programme.

7.45 pm
The Solicitor-General (Sir Ian Percival)

It will be no surprise to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) that I take issue with him on his criticisms of policy, but I do not take issue on anything else. I fully understand the desire of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to debate either a change in the amount devoted to overseas aid or the law relating to overseas aid, but they will equally understand that it is not within my province to say what shall or shall not be debated. What has been said is on the record. I have no doubt that the business managers on this side of the House will pay close attention to the suggestions made.

My task is relatively simple. I believe that I can remove the other causes for concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman. If I can do so, the debate will have served a useful purpose in that respect, as well as in getting the other views on the record.

I believe that there is some misunderstanding about my statement that the Bill repeals 17 Acts. So it does, but it re-enacts all the provisions of those Acts. There is no change in the law. We have got rid of 17 statutes and parts of 12 others, and all the provisions of the law that are contained in those are now contained in this one Bill. It is the last of a series of consolidation measures, tidying up the bits and pieces. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of having to take something on trust. We are merely bringing within the covers of one Bill the provisions of 17 statutes—or 29—without altering the effect of them save in one respect, to which I shall refer.

The hon. Gentleman is a senior Member of this House. He knows that the verification of that is to be found in the report of the Joint Consolidation Committtee. In this House we are lucky that we have that Committee to do for us the work that the hon. Gentleman rightly says that we should have to do for ourselves if someone else did not do it. I can set his mind and the mind of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr McElhone) at rest on that. We are not changing anything. The measures are repealed, but their provisions are reenacted.

There is one small exception. Two sections of the West Indies Act 1967 are repealed and not re-enacted, because they are obsolete. That does not take away any right that there might have been to anybody to have aid, nor does it take away any right that anybody would need to give aid. In all other respects the law is as it was before.

The hon. Member for Queen's Park asked whether, if there were to be further cuts, that would mean that parts of the Bill would be obsolete. My answer is "No". Nothing could be done that would affect the provisions of the Bill without further legislation. Mere changes in the amounts available would not necessarily have an effect on the provisions of the Bill. If they did, there would have to be further legislation. Even then, this Bill would be worth while, because after the Bill has been passed we have all the relevant provisions between its covers. If something has to be amended, we are merely amending this one Bill.

The hon. Gentleman asked what clause 14 did. I draw attention to the table of derivations. If the hon. Gentleman has not had one I shall be very glad to supply him with a copy. It sets out one by one the clauses of the Bill and then says where the provisions come from—in other words, that a clause is re-enacting the sections that are specified in the table of derivations. If the hon. Gentleman would like me to deal with it further he has only to say so. I know that some provisions of the Overseas Act 1960, for example, are re-enacted in clause 14, and some provisions of the 1966 Act.

Mr. McElhone

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General. He said that the Bill would not interfere in any way with the cuts that I understand are now being discussed by the Cabinet. I do not wish him to send me a list of the items that he mentioned in his last comments, but in referring to clause 14 we know that the provision of teachers for, and for further educational co-operation between, Commonwealth countries has already been seriously impaired. We know that from the statement of the Minister in August 1979, and that there will be a 14 per cent. cut in the next three years. It is almost a certainty, therefore, that items such as education for Commonwealth students must be seriously at risk.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has been rather optimistic. We do not know what happened at the Cabinet meeting this morning, but if he can tell my hon. Friends and me that no cuts in overseas development have been discussed at the Cabinet meeting this morning, or since the Cabinet met this morning, I shall be delighted to hear that.

The Solicitor-General

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened. In so far as I referred to possible cuts, I was taking a purely hypothetical case. I am not indicating either that there are likely to be any, or that, if there were any, they would be of such a nature as to be relevant to clause 14. I am speaking, as it were, in the air about this and seeking merely to deal in general terms with the hon. Gentleman's point.

Clause 14 contains enabling provisions. It says what may be done with moneys provided by Parliament. What can be done must depend, of course, upon how much money is provided by Parliament, but the amount that is provided by Parliament does not depend upon clause 14. That clause merely says what may be done with the money provided by Parliament for the purposes of the clause.

Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

Perhaps the Solicitor-General will accept some support from me. I think that the point was that it is something of a charade to have powers on the statute book if the Government manifestly do not avail themselves of them. Will the Solicitor-General agree that it is as well to retain the powers on the statute book because we hope that a future Government will avail themselves of them?

The Solicitor-General

Adopting the point in rather more general terms, I think that all of us who would wish it to be possible to give the assistance for which clause 14 provides, whatever the amount of money provided, would wish to see the clause remain in the Bill. 1 hope, therefore, that although we have had this debate on the clause, the conclusion will be that the clause should stay in the Bill. Unless the clause stays in the Bill, however much money is provided for the purposes of the clause it cannot be used for that purpose.

I understand the great interest in the amount of money that may be available for the purposes of the clause, but the conclusion to which the discussion must lead us, I suggest, is that we need the clause in the Bill so that whatever moneys are available may be used in the appropriate way.

With regard to the hon. Member's point about the letter that he received, I know that he will not feel it discourteous of me to say that it would not be right for me to try to answer the detailed point involved. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue it, no doubt one of my colleagues will be happy to deal with it.

If there are any further matters on the clause, I shall be happy to deal with them, but, for the reasons that I have mentioned. I hope that it will be appreciated that the fears expressed as to the law have no foundation. The clause does not alter the law in any way, and it is very much for the convenience of everybody interested in the matter that these remaining bits and pieces should be brought within one Bill. I hope, therefore, that the clause will remain in the Bill and very soon become law, together with the rest of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 15 to 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.