HC Deb 27 October 1980 vol 991 cc54-60
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for the Arts (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short Business Statement.

In the light of my right hon. Friend's Statement the business for the remainder of the week will now be as follows:—

TUESDAY 28 OCTOBER—Proceedings on the Imprisonment (Temporary Powers) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 29 OCTOBER—Debate on unemployment on a motion for the Adjournment. This subject has been chosen by the Opposition.

Motion on the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations.

THURSDAY 30 OCTOBER—Debate on procedure.

Second Reading of the Overseas Development and Co-operation Bill [Lords], and proceedings on the Limitation Bill [Lords], which are consolidation measures.

Proceedings on the Statute Law Revision (Northern Ireland Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 31 OCTOBER—Resumed debate on the motion on references in court to Official Report of Debates and reports of Committees, followed by a motion relating to recommendation 47 of the first report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1977–78 on the publication of reports of evidence to Select Committees.

Mr. Mark Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is difficult for us to consider the Leader of the House's statement. I have been to the Vote Office three times in the past seven minutes to try to acquire a copy of the Bill that is to be debated tomorrow. It is not available. Palpably, it affects my constituency and I cannot get to Durham, consult persons in my constituency, and be back here tomorrow for the consideration of the Bill. May we have a delay, at least so that the Bill will be available to hon. Members?

Mr. Speaker

The Business Statement is the responsibility of the Government Front Bench. I can do nothine about it.

Mr. Foot

On the proposed business for tomorrow, we on the Opposition Benches—and the House generally—are normally deeply anxious about proposals to take business at such short notice and to put Bills through the House in a single day. It is right that the House should be anxious about such a proposal, because often it is not the best way to legislate. Grave mistakes can be made when such precipitate measures are put to the House.

If the Leader of the House and the Government think that it is essential to bring forward the measures in that way, the Home Secretary must be responsible for making the case tomorrow, both on the Second Reading proposition and on individual items that may arise. We shall have to judge the matter on that basis.

The Leader of the House has also rearranged some of the business for the rest of the week. He could have left it as it was, which might have been more convenient for the House, or he could have had on, say, Thursday, a discussion on the calamitous replies given earlier by the Secretary of State for the Environment. That might have been a preferable arrangement, but it is a matter for the Government to decide.

The Leader of the House is proposing to postpone the business that he had previously announced for Thursday. I do not ask him to answer my question now, but will he take account of the fact that the motion on the EEC document on driving licences goes much wider than some might previously have supposed, and we should like a full debate on it before a vote takes place on the document?

The new business for tomorrow is the main point of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, and we shall have to wait and see whether the Government are able to make their case.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am in great sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. I do not think that it is desirable to legislate in this manner on a single day unless there are overriding reasons of the national interest which compel us to take that course. The right non. Gentleman is right that it is not—

Mr. Mark Hughes

When will it be published?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Just a minute. I shall deal with one question at a time. As I was saying, that is not the normal way of proceeding in the House and there is no intention on the part of the Government that it shall be. With regard to the publication of the Bill, which the right hon. Gentleman is rightly anxious about, it will be available at 6 o'clock in the Vote Office in draft form. It is quite a short Bill of four main clauses and four subsidiary ones.

With regard to the rival claims of the procedure debate and the European driving licences measure, I believe that it is for the convenience of the House that we should dispose of this question of procedure. It has been swept off the Order Paper for reasons that I need not go into again now. I believe that it is the general desire of the House that it should have an early opportunity to decide on these important measures of procedure. I have accordingly placed the debate to take place on Thursday.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have stood in their places.

Mr. John Evans

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is situated in my constituency of Risley one of the largest remand centres in the country, where a great number of problems are being created at this time? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it appears that the Government are treating Back Benchers with contempt in not giving them the opportunity to discuss what is a serious dispute with the people involved? Is he aware that there is a grave danger that the introduction of troops into the dispute will exacerbate the situation and escalate it gravely and that we have no opportunity to seek to have discussions with the prison officers involved on the Bill which the Government propose to rush through the House in one day?

Mr. St John-Stevas

This is a grave situation. There is a duty on the Government to take immediate action both on grounds of security and, indeed, on humanitarian grounds for those who are sent to prison. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will gladly receive any representations that the hon. Gentleman wishes to make about his constituency.

Mr. Abse

Does the Leader of the House appreciate that the Home Secretary is asking hon. Members in one day, tomorrow, in a Bill that is not yet published, to collude in an assault on civil liberties that is probably unprecedented in peace time in this century? Does he appreciate that in not responding even to the question of the postponement of the Bill or the question of two days of the Bill, he is again asking the House to collude in an assault upon the courts whereby executive action on the part of bureaucrats inside the Home Office can determine the liberty or otherwise of the subject?

Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that it would be wise to recommend to the Home Secretary that we have more time, that the Bill should be postponed for a day or two, and that, above everything, the Home Secretary responds to the Opposition Leader in a way that he has not yet done by giving assurances about future penal reform, in particular the 50 per cent. remission. so that out of this shambles we can feel we have something, rather than that arising from a piffling dispute over meal breaks we could see the crumbling of the whole edifice of civil liberties in Britain?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not think that we should have tomorrow's debate now at business question time. I should perhaps point out to the hon. Gentleman, who feels strongly on these matters, that the major provisions of the Bill are temporary and will lapse, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, when the dispute is settled. The other points must be debated tomorrow. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. It is, however, right to pay tribute to the Home Secretary for the amount of penal reform that he has been able to achieve in extremely difficult financial circumstances.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

As some of the powers that the Home Secretary is claiming are Cromwellian in their extent, it is surely unacceptable for the House to get through discussion of those powers in one day. We should have longer to deal with them. Is the Leader of the House aware that the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was introduced as a tailporary measure and is still with us? It is surely unacceptable that we should be forced to go through this procedure in one day when the Home Secretary was last week exercising power, in what lie said when addressing magistrates, that he did not possess. The right hon. Gentleman could therefore afford to wait a little longer before he gets power under a Bill that has never been put before us.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks are relevant to the debate tomorrow. There are precedents for this form of action: the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Bill 1972, the Counter-Inflation (Temporary Provisions) Bill 1972, the Counter-Inflation Bill 1973, the Prevention of Terrorism Bill 1974—by mentioning which the hon. Gentleman kindly put me in mind of the precedents—and the Dividends Bill 1978 This is a recognised, although I agree it should not be a normal, way of proceeding in the House. But this is an emergency situation. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would have been open to much graver criticism if he had not acted promptly.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he might have added the Official Secrets Bill of August 1911 to the list of precedents that he has read out. Can he explain to the House why, when the Government have known the dimensions of the problem they are facing for at least the last seven days, they could not have presented the House with a draft Bill before the Home Secretary rose to speak? Can he explain the precedents that exist in this House whereby Members of Parliament have simply been given the period between 6 pm one day—now 7 pm—and 2.30 pm the following day in which to study a Bill, consider it and formulate amendments which are watertight and reasonable amendments, table those amendments and, if necessary, make the sort of "usual channel" representations that sometimes happen in these cases to explain their intentions? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the machinery of Parliament can operate properly within the time scale that he has laid down?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Of course I am not satisfied with these proceedings.

Nevertheless, it is essential, in certain circumstances, for the Government to be able to act swiftly and put proposals before the House. I am grateful for the precedent that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) added to mine.

Mr. Price

It is not a very happy one.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is why I did not quote it. It was not helpful to my argument, but it gave the hon. Gentleman the opportunity of joining in and putting it forward. All these Bills—I do not want to argue about the actual number of hours—were brought forward at short notice. There are, therefore, precedents. I hope that within an hour or so—I said 6 pm not 7 pm—the Bill will be available. It was not possible to publish the Bill earlier because it was not clear that the dispute could not be settled. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was trying, up to the last minute, to secure a settlement of the dispute and so avoid putting the House to this device.

Mr. Cryer

Does the Leader of the House accept that there are somewhat grim overtones of a Right-wing Government establishing prison camps to solve their industrial relations confrontation? As hon. Members are not going to hear an explanation of the Bill—which we are not going to see until tonight—before Second Reading, will manuscript amendments be permitted after Second Reading in order to counteract and combat the arguments that the Home Secretary will presumably be putting forward in his justification for trampling on the rights of Parliament?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

There is a serious point involved. But the hon. Gentleman does not advance his cause by the exaggeration in the first part of his question. With regard to manuscript amendments, it is customary in these circumstances for manuscript amendments to be allowed by the Chair. That is a matter for the Chair. If put forward, I understand, from preliminary inquiries, that it would be possible for them to be selected and debated.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does the Leader of the House accept that if the Government were doing their job properly, if they acknowledged that they live in the real world and that the dispute would have to be settled some time, the Bill and the disruption of parliamentary business would not have been necessary? The right hon. Gentleman is more likely to obtain his Bill, or to obtain it more quickly, if some of the more interesting measures that the Home Secretary has announced, such as the non-imprisonment of fine and maintenance defaulters, were made permanent.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I cannot argue the case from both sides. The point that I have taken is that the major provisions of the Bill are temporary. There are certain measures in it that the hon. Gentleman approves of, but it is a temporary Bill, except for one provision which is permanent. It may well be that good will come out of this, that out of the Bill it may well be possible to secure some permanent legislation.

Mr. Ennals


Mr. Speaker

I shall call the right hon. Gentleman, although he rose after I had said which hon. Members I would call.

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. Does the Leader of the House accept that he not only has responsibilities for getting Government business through the House as quickly as he can but has responsibilities to individual hon. Members, to Back Benchers, to those of us who have prisons in our constituencies and who are entitled to consult and consider before we deal with the legislation that is placed before us? Is not the right hon. Gentleman putting Members of Parliament in an intolerable position? How can we properly consider the proposals that are to be laid at 6 o'clock tonight when we are required to debate them tomorrow? Is not this making nonsense of legislation?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I fully accept my responsibility to see that there is adequate time for debate, but I must balance that against the emergency situation that we are in. I recommend to the right hon. Gentleman the rather more temperate words of the official Opposition spokesman on home affairs, for whose offer of co-operation I am grateful.